Sadly, it is already too late, my dear reader, to see this expo as today is the last day at the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. I was lucky enough to have my friend comein.com invite me to see this huge retrospective on Crumb as a birthday present. It was a massively huge exposition. There were over 700 drawings and plates shown as well as the entire Illustrated Genesis. As the title indicated, this expo covers all of Crumbs career from his first sketches to the myriad of underground through his later work. I have been a Crumb fan for quite a long time. Like many others, my fascination (and perhaps awareness altogether) with him started with the 1994 movie Crumb by Terry Zwigoff. This movie was actually shown in its entirety at the end of the expo (sort of impractical as it is a full 2h long) and we were literally kicked out of the museum at closing because we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the projection. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about Crumb’s material. When I say that, I don’t want my readers to think that I would have wilfully suppressed any of his creative expression. I just have a hard time with the repetitive themes after a while – and cannot fathom the depths of his incestuous/pedophile fantasies. After about 2 or 3 hundred strips that I read, I felt that I was pretty much Crumb-saturated from a comix point of view because the 10-20 archetypal men, women, and beasts get repetitive after a while. There are however moments of insight and pathos that I didn’t want to miss.
One of my favourites shows Mr Natural meditating as the whole world builds up and gets destroyed all around him. This seems to be quite a metaphor for Crumb himself. He is always there to express for us the suppressed fantasies and thoughts we flee from and the world just continues to go on around him. He is a passive artist in that sense, always in the background, the underground. This is apparent also in the movie where he describes one of his basest and most controversial comics that he had thrown away as just too much but that his wife Aline had insisted that he complete and publish. “You have to get this out”, if I can paraphrase. Better him than me in any case, but if some of the most base material is filtered out, there remains an enormous mountain of interesting work. In fact there was another similar drawing of a banal street corner with the neighbourhood around it going into the future and being eliminated by war or decay and us being left again with the banal landscape of telephone poles and slack overhead electric lines.
I saw Crumb’s band, les Primitifs du Futur back in about 1999 here in Paris, but he was unfortunately not there that particularly night. His fascination for blues and old 78 rpm recordings is one of the points where my fascination with him really peaks. In 2006, he and Zwigoff published a book with a CD about some of the seminal early works called Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country with all of the recordings coming from 1910-1930. It is wonderfully commented and illustrated and highly recommendable – particularly great gift material (thanks again comein.com 🙂 The exposition dedicated a room too Crumb’s musical musings and exploration.
The highlight of the exposition was certainly the full reproduction of his Illustrated Genesis which filled an entire room. Comein.com gave me the book for my birthday about three years ago and I had not taken the time to read it up until seeing it here in this exposition. It is an incredible interpretation of this first book of the Bible. Apparently, he studied loads of images and texts trying to find the requisite 100s of different faces for this book that changes characters so often. Particularly amazing was how he managed to make even the long, and normally tedious “begats” lists interesting. I few things that stuck out for me: I had completely glossed over the fact that in about Chapter 6 – just before the story of Noah – that there are divine creatures, the Nephalim, walking the earth and frolicking with humans. I don’t recall that from Sunday School. I had also forgotten that Jacob lied his ass off in screwing his brother Esau out of his birthright, and yet God looked down approvingly at the deception. The whole Ham, Shem, and Japeth story was also quite confusing because we never quite understand Abraham’s outcry against Canaan. All this to say that I was pulled in to the story completely mostly thanks to the quality and originality of Crumb’s illustrations. I would highly recommend this but would caution against using it as educational material for younger kids because, as you realize especially reading Crumb’s version, there is loads of sex and violence here.
Overall, the expo certainly got my brain thinking and responding to lots of different ideas. He is a complex character driven but definitely an acquired taste. I thank comein.com for this wonderful gift and promise to read the copy of Genesis she gave me now 🙂