|R. Crumb used text he found in the King James Version of the Bible in “The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb,’’ published in 2009. (R. Crumb)|
A graphic display of biblical proportions
R. Crumb's visuals detail Genesis stories with humanity, heart
BRUNSWICK, Maine — God came to Robert Crumb in a dream, enlisting Crumb’s help to protect life as we know it. The revered and irreverent cartoonist described the image, which appeared to him in 2000, in an interview in the Paris Review last year: “He had features almost like Mel Gibson or Charlton Heston. . . . It was painful to look at this face, it was so severe and yet so anguished.’’
Crumb attempted to capture that God in an epic project published in 2009, “The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb.’’ The complete original drawings from that four-year undertaking are on view at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis.’’ The show was organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and this is its only stop in New England.
Why would Crumb — the author of sardonic, subversive, and salacious comics such as Fritz the Cat and the underground Zap Comix, which Crumb founded in the 1960s, and now a regular New Yorker contributor — take on something as venerable as the Book of Genesis? “For the money,’’ he says in the Paris Review interview.
But let’s assume there’s another, less overt agenda. Certainly not piety. How about a giant creative challenge? In terms of sheer length, the Book of Genesis is Crumb’s most ambitious project. He set out with the agenda to simply and faithfully illustrate it, without impertinent commentary. He wrote none of the text himself, but stuck mostly to what he found in the King James Version and Robert Alter’s recent translation, “The Five Books of Moses.’’ Crumb found himself in familiar territory, rife with shame, violence, sex, jealousy, devastation, and injustice. His Genesis removes his voice and retains his vision; the irony and ego that run through many of his works are gone, but the bruised heart remains. The drawings are deep and stunningly detailed. The stories are aggrieved, hopeful, and occasionally perplexing. How like life.
Crumb has, in the last 10 or 15 years, taken on the mantle of a master draftsman. His work has entered museum collections, and it’s not just because highbrows are embracing lowbrows. There are echoes of Hieronymus Bosch in his drawings, and Philip Guston, who perhaps was the first to liberate the art world to embrace in-your-face, cartoony figuration.
For all his brawny characters and bawdy stories, Crumb has a remarkably delicate hand and a genius for composition. To see his work on museum walls is to study it anew. It’s not easy to read a 207-page graphic novel on the wall, but I found myself much more drawn into the startling and complex visuals than I did when I read the book, which caught me up in the stories.
The original drawings are larger, crisper, and more vibrant than the reproductions in the book. They also reveal a handful of alterations made with correction fluid. Early on, after Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge, they hear God strolling in the garden and they hide from him. Crumb has drawn God in the distance in a hollow among trees. He’s drawn over a whited-out area. The white provides God’s unearthly shimmer, in a crowded panel at a small scale, even if it was used to cover a mistake.
God does resemble Heston as an older Moses, with a mane of white hair and a flowing beard. His ferocity never yields, even when he’s creating Earth. In that series of gorgeous, star-strewn panels, he looks angry, dark-eyed, and beleaguered, even if his gestures are open and inviting. Likewise, there’s no mistaking the jealous anguish in the expressions of Cain or Esau, or the struggle of any number of women laboring in childbirth. But then there’s sheer joy, too, as Adam couples with Eve, and Isaac joins with Rebekah. The sex is mildly graphic, but for Crumb, it’s surprisingly wholesome.
The most impressive panels, though, are the ones in which Crumb elegantly crams reams of information. Noah’s story is visually captivating: Sheets of rain strike the planks of the giant ark; those people and animals left behind drown in the rising waters; hordes of animals exit the ark from the top of Mount Ararat.
A handful of source material and background ephemera on Crumb are on view in a nearby gallery, including M.C. Gaines’s “Picture Stories From the Bible’’ from the 1940s and screen shots from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments.’’
In the Paris Review, Crumb says, “The most impressive thing is actually illustrating everything that’s in there.’’ He’s partly right. The accumulation of all that nitty-gritty, even down to the begats (in some instances, Crumb draws a portrait of every begotten man listed), gives “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis’’ the flesh and purpose that the Book of Genesis deserves. He says in his introduction to the book, “I, ironically, do not believe the Bible is ‘the word of God.’ I believe it is the words of men.’’ His illustrations are also the work of a man — sensuous, questioning, and open to mystery.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.