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R. Crumb Uncovered

R. Crumb Uncovered is a new exhibition of original art by Robert Crumb showing at the Scream Gallery, 34 Bruton Street, London as part of the London Comica Festival. It features selected originals by the underground comix maestro of Fritz the Cat, Mr Natural and more from the 1960s to 2001.  Curator Brandon Coburn has selected the finest drawings from the Symbolic Collection of more than 300 pages of Robert Crumb drawings dating from the 1960s to 2001 and will feature mainly pen and ink drawings, but also sketchbook pages, greeting cards, ink on acetate, and one very rare oil painting, in the vein of a cubist Picasso portrait. The exhibition runs from 13 November to 12 December, 2009

There is more than one R. Crumb. There is certainly more than the one cliché “Crumb” who has been simplistically summarised by several British reviewers of his latest, four-year magnum opus, a word-for-word graphic reinterpretation of The Book of Genesis (Jonathan Cape). For instance, how can Nina Caplan in Time Out define Crumb as “...a solipsistic miserabilist with a line in chunky belles and priapic cats” and conclude that, despite this, “...he’s done a surprisingly fine job”, unless she is unaware of Crumb’s many forays since the Eighties into illuminating literary adaptation, from James Boswell’s London Journal and Baron Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis to Introducing Kafka? How can the BBC’s Religious Affairs Correspondent Robert Pigott put such emphasis, in his Today programme report, on the book’s supposedly lurid aspects, homing in on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Bible story read out loud with horror-film sound effects? He hypes these scenes as being “depicted in graphic unsparing detail. Nothing is left to the imagination. They aren’t obscene, certainly not pornographic, but they certainly are explicit”.

Look through Crumb’s Genesis and there is hardly anything on show to upset, if you can cope with a few bared breasts and buttocks, and nothing to compare to his earlier, much wilder works. There is nothing like the two particularly potent panels in his classic autobiographical compilation My Troubles with Women which led to the book being seized and sued by HM Customs and Excise on the grounds of obscenity. They lost the case in 1996 and I like to think that as a witness in Crumb’s defense I may have helped a bit to persuade the magistrates of his merits as an heir to William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray and as one of the most important cartoonists of our times.

Crumb has become all too easily typecast and pigeon-holed in our media circus and public presumptions, as if he is still, and will be forever, solely the sex-obsessed taboo-breaker and outrager, unchanged since his first full flowering in the underground comix movement of the late Sixties. Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb movie probably only popularised the misconception of him, his brothers and his whole life as totally, irredeemably weird. Crumb’s role in portraying and iconifying America’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll counterculture was central and pivotal, and yet he remained an outsider to that era as its wry, ambivalent observer and recorder.

And this is only one of several Crumbs, all facets of this multi-faceted artist. Another Crumb is unflinching in his candour and self-deprecation about his most unflattering adolescent lusts and adult foibles and fetishes. Yet another Crumb is a master satirist, puncturing pretenses of self-satisfied liberals as much as those of conservative reactionaries. There’s also the Crumb who treasures the raw vitality of past masters of the blues, jazz, country and other popular music, paying tribute to them in biographical comics, CD covers, card sets and his own music-making. Not forgetting the Crumb as illustrator of Harvey Pekar’s slices of mundane wonder in American Splendor, and the Crumb as husband to his cartooning peeress Aline Kominsky, the two of them interacting on the same page, the same panel, to commemorate their “dirty laundry” together. A further little-known Crumb in this show turns out to be a Picasso-inspired Cubist oil painter.

So Crumb no longer deserves to be labeled as some cult figure, a “doyen of the underground”, as if he remains marginal, if not obscure. He cannot still be defined only as the same misfit and maverick who revolutionised the comics medium with Zap Comix, Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and a plethora of inspired characters, many of them bursting forth from his brain after one exceptional, enlightening LSD experience.

Crumb turned 66 last August 3th and just became a grandfather. His home with Aline in the rural south of France is a townhouse traded for six of his original sketchbooks in Sauve, where Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts also has a place. Crumb is a serious, even studious, widely- and deeply-read thinker, questioner and compulsive explorer of his outer and inner life. He may distrust the art world’s attentions, but they are eager to welcome him into their pristine white cubes, from the Whitechapel’s 2005 retrospective in London to the Hammer Museum’s current show of his Genesis pages in Los Angeles. In the precious, ink-on-paper, hand-crafted original pages displayed here, as in so much of what he draws and writes, we can witness how this multiplicity of Crumbs wants to shake us out of our comfort zones, challenge our received wisdoms and denials, counter our soulless mass media. We should be grateful for all these many Crumbs, and for their nourishing Crumbs of Discomfort.

Posted: November 11, 2009

This article originally appeared as the introduction to Scream Gallery exhibition catalogue for ‘R. Crumb Uncovered’.


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Comica ‘09
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Symbolic Collection

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Featured Books

The Book of Genesis
by Robert Crumb