Detail from 'Motor City Comics No 1', 1969

Robert Crumb: A Chronicle Of Modern Times

In case you were wondering, The Belated Birthday Girl doesn't automatically accompany me to every event I go to: sometimes, I have to sell them to her. So when the Whitechapel Gallery in London announced they were holding a major retrospective of Robert Crumb's artwork, I showed her a few examples to persuade her to visit it with me. She agreed to come, but expressed a couple of concerns: the main one being that the samples I'd shown her looked a lot like the sort of stuff you'd see in Viz comic all the time. I hadn't thought about it before, but the things I like about Crumb's work are probably very similar to the things I like about the cartoons of Chris and Simon Donald and their mates.

Both Crumb and Viz trade in a violent contrast between style and content. Certainly in Crumb's early underground work, as in Viz, the obvious influences come from the comics of the artists' childhood, be they The Beano or Pogo Possum. In both cases, their work uses the visual style of those influences, and assumes the viewer will have a nostalgic reaction to that style - but then it pulls the rug from under your feet by using it as a delivery system for wholly unsuitable content. That frame from Motor City Comics No 1 up there uses classic comics shorthand we all know and love - the red face and flying sweat of the angry worker, the punctuation characters to replace naughty words, even the use of the word 'zzz' - to simultaneously celebrate and send up the class struggle. The BBG was expecting this exhibition to have a lot more Viz-style scatalogical material, but one of its surprises is the breadth of Crumb's subject matter - along with the inevitable sex 'n' violence, there's also a definite engagement with social issues, even if it's sometimes just to take the piss out of them to annoy people.

Robert Crumb: A Chronicle Of Modern Times is the title of the Whitechapel exhibition, running from April 1st to May 22nd, 2005. As the title implies, it tries to be as wide-ranging as possible: from his early childhood cartoon strips, through his heyday as a father figure to the hippie movement, to his current acceptance by the fine art establishment. For example, early on in the show you get Frosty The Snowman, a perfect example of the sort of thing I've just been talking about - a series of half-page gag strips telling the story of Frosty and his Mao-quoting pals as they hatch a Christmas plot to blow up the Rockefeller mansion. But to get to these, you've got to pass a pair of detailed literary adaptations. One of them is the Grimm fairy tale, Mother Hulda: the other is Boswell's London Journey, a selection of entries from the great man's journals. Both of these were drawn in the eighties, by which time Crumb had evolved away from the rounded cartoony style of Frosty into a darker, more 'artistic' approach. But already we can see Crumb's most notorious obsessions coming to the fore, even when adapting other people's work - both pieces inevitably are based around Amazonian big arsed women, in Boswell's case resulting in an unwelcome visit to the clap clinic.

Before the wave of hype that accompanied this exhibition, Crumb's last appearance in public life was as a character in American Splendor, the 2003 movie about the life and work of comics writer (and regular Crumb collaborator) Harvey Pekar. Their work is represented here by a couple of strips in the typical Pekar/Crumb style of functionally illustrated vignettes and conversations. Hypothetical Dilemma is the best of the set, because it's a break from the norm: it depicts Pekar walking the streets, trying to decide if becoming famous would affect his writing for the worse. Crumb's masterstroke in this piece is to insert silent frames into Pekar's internal monologue, which speak as loudly as the words. And you notice them because by this stage of the exhibition (about one-eighth of the way through), the viewer's had to get through a lot of words: the strips I've already mentioned, plus a couple of music biographies several pages long, include an almost exhausting amount of text. I'd imagined that an exhibition of this sort would be mainly based around sketches, paintings and cover images: but no, most of it's comic-strip narrative of fairly high density. Things calm down a little from this point on, but it helps get across the point that this show will take a good few hours of viewing to give it justice.

Left to right: Jesse, Max and Robert Crumb, photographed around the time of the Terry Zwigoff documentaryAnd that's before you take into account the huge amount of audio-visual content you get for your entrance fee of, er, nothing. Did I mention yet that it's a free exhibition? Well, it is. And it includes three hours worth of documentary footage, shown in two shut-off rooms within the gallery. One of the rooms is showing an interesting-sounding BBC Arena documentary from 1987. Sadly, it's interesting-sounding because elsewhere in the exhibition there's a self-drawn graph of Crumb's psychological state year by year, and he claims to have been at an all-time low of depression at the exact time it was made. The other room is showing Terry Zwigoff's feature documentary Crumb, made around ten years ago. I didn't have the time to catch either of these in the exhibition itself, but I rewatched Crumb on video a couple of days later for some historical background.

Director Terry Zwigoff's a long-term associate of Crumb - he's played in at least one of Crumb's jazz bands, and we get to see a sketch of him inside one of the artist's old sketchbooks. Thankfully, being a friend of the subject doesn't appear to have compromised his documentary in the slightest - not that there was any risk of that, given the legendary self-loathing of that subject. Zwigoff isn't afraid to include detailed analyses of two of Crumb's most contentious works - Joe Blow (which describes how incest keeps the American family together) and A Bitchin' Bod (in which Mr Natural and Flakey Foont meet what appears to be the idealised Crumb female - muscular legs, firm buttocks, removable head). Negative opinions of these two strips are given a more than fair hearing. But at the same time, the film shows us more of Crumb the man, warts and all.

Zwigoff does this by spending a lot of time with Crumb's family, notably his brothers Charles and Max. Their two sisters declined to be filmed, so we only have limited evidence to go on: but it would appear that, astonishingly, Robert is the most balanced and well-rounded individual in his family. Max begs on the streets of San Francisco, meditates on a bed of nails, and has a compulsive tic of repeatedly tossing a bullet into the air whenever he talks to someone. He's made a choice to only engage with society on a limited level, and doesn't really have a problem with it. Charles' plight, on the other hand, is more heartbreaking: he's still living with his mother in his middle age, refusing to leave the house, but is perfectly and charmingly aware of his own shortcomings. Robert insists Charles was always the better artist, but we watch in horror as Charles' sketchbooks veer from pirate cartoons, to strips which are virtually all text, to entire notebooks full of meaningless squiggles. If there's a flaw to the movie, it's the emotional manipulation of the way Charles' story is presented in it, though I suspect circumstances forced Zwigoff's hand on that score.

Robert, meanwhile, appears to have got it right: he could so easily have ended up as disturbed as his brothers, but art seems to have been his salvation. And the relationships he has with his closest family - wife Aline, daughter Sophie, and his son Jesse from an earlier marriage - come across as genuine, in the midst of his hatred for pretty much anything the 20th century can offer. In my favourite part of the movie, he's sketching along with Jesse, the two of them copying pictures from a book of photos of female mental patients. Jesse's work is almost photorealistic, but just sits there on the page. Robert's sketch is more obviously cartoony, but he explains how he's exaggerated the key elements in the picture - a look in the eyes, a faint curl of contempt in the mouth - and as a result, the image has incredible life. It'd be too much to expect a documentary about an artist to explain exactly how they do what they do, but this is the closest I've ever seen a film come to that.

Detail (and this was a *bitch* to crop, believe me) from 'The Many Faces Of R Crumb', 1972Meanwhile, back in the main body of the Whitechapel exhibition, the strictly narrative content of the early sections starts to break down a bit more. We get covers, sketchbook pages (frustratingly, some with interesting stuff going on on the other side of the page), and assorted one page rants. And through all this, as I walk around with The BBG, I'm waiting for the moment when we come across something appallingly misogynistic or pornographic, which I'll have to justify to her with a pre-prepared statement about freedom of expression and so on. Surprisingly, that moment doesn't come. Everyone knows about the more problematic aspects of Crumb's work: it's why we're warned on entering that it's unsuitable for children. There was even a large section of the Guardian newspaper's week-long Crumb feature devoted to his more adult work (resulting in predictable knee-jerk whining from some of its readers). And yet, the most explicit and degrading images on show here turn out to be in a room where those Guardian articles are pinned up on a wall.

For some reason, this exhibition has chosen a comparatively tame selection of Crumb's work. Sure, there's the odd piece that pulls you up short, such as a nude variation of the image partially shown above. But, for example, the tale of Fritz The Cat chosen for display (featuring a four-in-a-bath orgy that gets wildly out of hand) has a purely innocent charm to it. We get a Crumb rant about the way feminists shouldn't be censoring his work, but we don't get any real examples of the blacker material that inspired the criticism that inspired the response. It's not like he's ashamed of this work nowadays, as his recent Guardian-reader baiting has shown. I suspect that it's more likely that this is just the Whitechapel playing it safe - after all, the Spitz gallery round the corner suffered a police raid not too long ago, over an exhibition of an artist's naked holiday snaps of her family. I'm not saying that Crumb's wilder excesses are completely excusable, but they're an important part of his impact as an artist, and it seems remiss to pretend they didn't happen.

Aside from that omission, the exhibition as it stands gives you a great insight into the wide range of his work, reminding you what a terrifically good draughtsman Crumb is - and how that skill has allowed him to get away with murder time and again. In his sixties nowadays, he's showing no signs of taking it easy. The final part of the exhibition covers his most recent work, since his move to France with Aline and Sophie around the time of the Crumb documentary. It includes numerous sketches on restaurant napkins - the service at his local pizzeria must be atrocious, given the lavish attention to detail in some of these pictures. And there are a couple of tag team strips by Robert and Aline, in which they both draw themselves. The final tale of a typical day in their French life is curiously uplifting - it's funny, light, but still manages to get across the loathing of modern American life that drove them there. Crumb seems to have resolved his relationship with the personal demons that drove his early work, without actually damaging the work itself.

There's a sweet little postscript in the final room of the show, dedicated to various reproductions of Crumb art - those Guardian articles, numerous comics covers, some large-scale posters, a couple of books, and a CD of his music. This would normally be the point where the visitor's book would be left open for comments. Instead, alongside his classic piece about how 'anyone can be a cartoonist', you'll find lots of blank paper for visitors to draw their own cartoons, which are then hung on the wall alongside his pieces. It's a lovely concept, beautifully illustrating his contempt for the way he's now treated as a 'fine arteest' because he's hung in galleries. But it also shows that actually, although anyone can be a cartoonist, being a great cartoonist is a lot tougher than people imagine. And a great cartoonist with a fine appreciation of twenties jazz to boot, judging from that CD. Having heard it, I'm afraid you won't be able to stop me from putting his rendition of My Girl's Pussy on my Pick Of The Year 2005 collection. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

The Whitechapel Gallery is showing the exhibition Robert Crumb: A Chronicle Of Modern Times between April 1st and May 22nd, 2005. If you're reading this after then, then you've missed it. Sorry.

rcrumb.net and Crumb Products are the two official Robert Crumb sites, run by his son Jesse. The first one is a fan community, the second one is an online store.

The Crumb Museum is an unofficial site with oodles of Crumb's pictures on display.

The Guardian went apeshit for Crumb just before the exhibition opened, publishing a week's worth of features gathered on their website as G2 In Crumbland. Apart from the art samples (including a couple of exclusives), there's also an interview with Crumb, an essay by art critic Robert Hughes, a Q&A with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and (best of all) a complete transcript of his recent on-stage interview with Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell.

Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's documentary, was released in 1995. Amazingly, the official site for the film is still lying around in Sony Classics' webspace some ten years after it was originally created. Fascinating to see what movie promo sites looked like in the days before Flash, isn't it?

The R Crumb Handbook has just been published alongside the Whitechapel exhibition: it's a fabulously chunky work, part autobiography, part greatest hits collection, and including the aforementioned CD of Crumb's performances with various jazz combos over the last 30 years. American readers can enter a Crumb lookalike competition to win a date with his wife. ("The date with Aline Crumb must be completed by December 31, 2005.")

Google Images, the natural home of cheapskate art lovers, has thousands of Crumb pictures you can look at. Choose between filtered and unfiltered search, but don't blame me if the latter takes you into areas you don't particularly like.

R Crumb's Cheap Suit Serenaders celebrates the band he played with in the seventies. If the few tracks on the Handbook CD whet your appetite, find out more here.

The Stanford Chaparral - a student humour magazine with a hefty history and a surrealist bent - takes pity on all of you schmucks who want to produce pictures like Crumb but don't have the talent. Help is at hand, in the form of the Robert Crumb Photoshop Filter.

April 24th 2005

Return to archive indexReturn to home page