Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Book of Genesis by Crumb: A Review

I was unaware that Crumb had his entire book of Genesis on display for a time at the Armand Hammer Gallery at UCLA, but I'm glad that Charles Hatfield was there to report back with text and photos. I've stayed away from reviewing Crumb's Genesis for a while to let the work sink in. With 4 years of illustration behind it, it deserves to be marinated on for a while as opposed to a simple quick reaction.

Hatfield comes in with a number of points in his review of both the exhibition as well as the book itself. One of the interesting ones was this:
The pages were traditional inked originals on Bristol board, maybe (I’m guesstimating) not quite half again as large as their printed counterparts, so minute attention was needed. I was able to seek out marks of correction, or adjustment, in the inking: for instance, Crumb’s subtle use of white-out, sometimes for texturing, sometimes because he apparently changed his mind about minute elements of the text. Evidence of “mistakes” or second-guessing was pretty minimal, though; Crumb’s facility and focus remain mind-blowing.
So all that ink detail is literally at a denser, small size in the originals? Wow. More impressed than i was a few minutes ago. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Crumb's work has always been problematic. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the dirty aftermath of the hippies, I've had no illusions at the golden era of peace and love. I rode my 10 speed past the burn outs on the sidewalk all the time growing up. So reading the Zap comics that were floating around? Revering Crumb and Sheldon and the rest? Difficult to read pot jokes when you're surrounded by people who got used to being stoned and lost the capacity to do anything with the rest of their lives.

Of course Crumb, like him or hate him, continued on to make statement after statement in the world. Like him or hate him, he's an artist down to his DNA. And he's a sequential artist to boot, which is an interesting difference to him, something that many artists can't say for all the interpretations that we've seen of biblical stories.

In the end, after reading through the entire Genesis book, I was struck that the project is one that stands more on its own merits as simply being completed, a four year marathon, than on being the sort of book that you can comment on in the usual terms (story, art, characterization, plot, etc.) Yes, it did get done, and I'm not certain how many artists would have taken those years to synthesize the different texts down to a single, cohesive graphic text. Crumb spends a great deal of artistic energy differentiating the faces and characters, so that he and we can have a visually identifiable Cain and Abel, but, and i suppose this is crucial to your enjoyment of the story, does he add anything to the fable to Cain and Abel? Should he add anything might also be a question that, depending upon your interpretation of the Bible, you might wish to add.

For me, I don't think that anything was really added. Yes, his women look rather like Crumb women, but that doesn't bother me. It doesn't add anything to my appreciation of the text either however. For all of my time invested in the reading, I only came away with an appreciation of the sheer amount of work involved, but not any new ideas towards the text of Genesis. Again you could argue that perhaps I shouldn't be asking anything to be added to stories, given that they alternate, in odd fashion, from the beginning of the Hebrew tribes to the creation stories, to parables, to extended family trees (intent most likely upon making sure that certain families allied themselves directly the originators of the 12 tribes). But,yes, I did want a little something more there. What more, I don't know, but a regurgitation or distillation of various texts in a graphic format doesn't really have a place in the "books I've been looking forward to".

I read a number of reviews of the book and have yet to run across one that really mentions a distinct benefit of having the book. And that bothers me. I'd like there to be a reason for it to exist, beyond just "I wanted to see if I could finish it." Is it an artistic statement to just finish the marathon?

Genesis will sit upon the bookshelf, but, like many bibles I'm afraid, will continue to gather dust rather than being referenced frequently.

1 comment:


A very thoughtful and thought provoking post, sir!

I fall into the 'like him' (or love him) category. He is one of my top ten influences, and although I have not been able to purchase the book yet, I have seen a few examples of the work. It is a curiosity, this marriage of the holy and the obscene (at least, much of his other work is, though I have no problem with that). For many who write off his work because of the uncomfortable sexual nature of so much of it, I am afraid they are missing out on the man's undeniable gifts. He has created some simply amazing 'legitimate' art and illustrations that those who may only be aware of his underground comics may fail to realize.

Can the statement that the original art is actually smaller than the printed image be true? That seems incredibly bizarre, unless I have misunderstood what I read.

All the best!