Image: Collection Paul Morris et Sam Grubman, New York © Robert Crumb
Text: Elliot Elam
I once asked Robert Crumb how he felt about his fame. 'I guess that I've left my mark on this earth' he eventually replied. 'But the fact I've succeeded in doing that? Well, it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot, really. Who's going to care four billion years from now? Not me, that's for sure’.
It embarrassed him but I stuck with it, mentioning how TIME's art critic had compared his work to Breughel’s. Crumb – sick of hearing about it – slid around in his seat. 'Oh sure' he squirmed. 'The Breughel of last week maybe'.
Listening in to our conversation was a room full of hippies and comic book geeks. You even saw the occasional woman if you were lucky. Crumb would turn to them occasionally, with his thick glasses gleaming under the lights, and offer a series of apologetic shrugs. 'These are my people', he explained, keen to show he hadn't abandoned his roots. 'I'd be dead in the water without these guys'.
But if you looked closely enough at the crowd, you could see that dotted in among 'these guys' was a newer bunch; The Aesthetes. There were only a few of them, sure, but there they were; standing elegantly in their muted clothes and heavily-framed spectacles, holding forefingers to their chins as they listened.
It was indicative of how things had changed for Crumb. His drawings were appearing on gallery walls, framed and fawned over, and by the time I met him, one of his sketchbook pages could fetch the same as a new Porsche. I wondered if all of the recognition had begun to interfere with his work. He nodded. 'If I sit down in front of a blank piece of paper it's like 'Here's the great and famous R. Crumb! This had better be a great masterpiece!' he said. 'And it's a little intimidating'.
Image: Courtesy Paul Morris and David Zwirner, New York © Robert Crumb
From Friday, The Musee D’Art Moderne De La Ville De Paris will do its best to add to that sense of intimidation – hosting a vast, 700-strong retrospective of Crumb's drawings that stretches back to the days when he was an unknown, selling screen-printed comics from a pram on Haight-Ashbury.
It's fascinating to see how the cramped and neurotic style of his youth has developed since then. The spindly Rapidograph scrawl from his early strips, like Fritz The Cat or Mister Natural, has swollen into a classical line that wouldn’t look out of place on a Benedictine manuscript. And it's also fun to see his work being hung – in a way that curators obviously feel they have to – with labels banally listing his mediums as 'Encre et Fluide Correcteur'.
Yet alongside his incredible skill as a comic artist, it's what Crumb's comics are about that has made him so inspirational. His world view is an LSD-and-Mad Magazine powered misanthropic tempest, from which he can spit bile at the hypocrites and the hippies. And at his mother and father. And at all of the women who turned him down. And whenever he grows tired of that, he can turn his ire inwards, and spit at his cretinous, ego-centric self.
I suppose there was a danger that the museum's highbrow surroundings would misrepresent – or even sanitise – this part of Crumb. And so it's to be applauded that the curators have decided to include some of his uglier, more controversial cartoons. Such as When the Niggers Take Over America.
Crumb drew the strip after moving to France in the early nineties, publishing it alongside a similar cartoon about The God Damned Jews. It’s a satirical, cautionary tale, narrated by an imaginary White Supremacist. Just you wait, it tell us. Those black men will soon rise up in a bloody and murderous way. An Idi Amin-esque general leads an army of uniformed brutes into the Oval Office. They kill the President. They put the First Lady on a leash and sexually assault her. And over the next ten or eleven panels, they enslave every white person in America, raping and killing their way to total domination.
And gosh, do I wish it was better. I suppose the uncomfortable truth about Crumb's reputation as a comic satirist is that he's no good when he really needs to be. Unlike, say, Dick Gregory or even Randy Newman (whose song Rednecks is also written from a racist's point of view), Crumb is too happy to wield irony like a sledgehammer when it comes to discussing race. And as a result, a strip like When The Niggers quickly collapses into a dreadfully ambiguous and unfunny mess. I've heard it became a big hit among America's Far Right. But then, I didn't want to check.
Using racial stereotypes in his work is something that Crumb freely admits to, saying that 'there's a perverse part of me (that) likes to take the heat for all that stuff'. One of his most famous examples is here in the exhibition – a picture called Jive with Angel Food McSpade. It's a drawing of a freakish, thick-lipped, bug-eyed woman, who seductively raises her leg and claims she was 'Attacked in the mud because I was a SEXY TEASE'.
The arguments about drawings like Jive with Angel Food go like so: 'He's subverting those images and throwing our own racism back at us'. Or 'he's just trying to shock you, Liberal'. Or 'he's genuinely a racist. He's not even being ironic'. And they play out like a game of rock, paper, scissors that nobody knows how to stop.
For his part, Crumb says the controversial stuff pours out of him because it's wired into his brain, from all the pop-imagery he saw on television and in comics and magazines. He’s certainly not a racist, he says, but he’s even less of a censor – and if this kind of stuff is in there, then who is he to keep it in?
Flicking through the exhibition catalogue and my (admittedly inexhaustive) collection of his work, I began to wonder if I’d ever seen a Crumb cartoon where a black person isn't drawn as some kind of stereotype – be it some jazzy hepcat, for example, or an earthy 'down home' type. I don't think I have.
Image: © Robert Crumb
The argument about whether Crumb is a sexist or not is far more clear cut. In fact, he admits it.
His sadomasochistic relationship with women is, in many ways, Crumb’s greatest hit – a composition that's been played again and again, in differing arrangements, over his entire career. He even told me that drawing subservient, sexualised women is how he learned to draw. 'It’s very hard to do’ he replied when I asked him about sharing himself with the world like this. ‘It’s killing me. Like, several million people know the intimate details of my sexual perversions. Like, I have to go hide in the woods. Just hide out there for a while’.
Those perversions can range from the plain ridiculous to much stronger meat. But as with his drawings of racial stereotypes, Crumb somehow feels compelled to put pen to paper and scribble out his thoughts, no matter how crooked they are. Perhaps it would have been easier if he was channeling that compulsion into prose, I wondered, and writing explicitly and misogynistically in the way his one time collaborator Charles Bukowski had done. Crumb thought this could well be true. 'Literature passed through this 50 years ago', he told me, 'getting censored, forbidden and all that. The fact that it's picture books is, I think, the big part of the problem'.
Obsessive depictions of the female form are simply everywhere in Crumb's work, and he must draw his ‘perfect woman’ (usually Jewish, thick-legged and with a rump as hefty as an old television set) at least once day. But they aren’t really women that he's drawing, they’re bodies. Receptacles, even.
And even in the more straightforward drawings, you still notice it. Take an exquisitely cross-hatched picture of Serena Williams the curators have chosen for this exhibition. It’s as if a teenager has drawn his dream car, bumpers and all.
Image: courtesy Paul Morris and David Zwirner, New York © Robert Crumb
In the run up to an appearance at the Sydney Opera House last year, outrage boiled about Crumb and his sexist, racist, twisted drawings. A local newspaper called up an anti-child abuse campaigner and described one of Crumb’s paintings to her. There’s this oversized baby, they said. And there's this guy having sex with it. The campaigner hit the roof like a dart, fuming at the 'depraved thought processes of this very warped human being' and calling his cartoons 'crude and perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind'.
The paper gleefully reported her fury and when Crumb heard about the article, he cancelled the gig. 'All it takes is a few people who overreact to something like that to show up and cause unpleasantness' he told the press. 'I have a lot of anxiety about having to confront some angry sexual-assault crisis group'.
Not that you should expect much outrage at this new retrospective. It’s in Paris after all, and much of Europe considers Crumb about as subversive as putting milk in your coffee. ‘They’re like, ‘what’s all this, this sex fantasy stuff? What’s his problem?’ he said to me. ‘It’s in the more repressed cultures like England and Germany; I’m real big in Germany right now’.
But don't go along expecting the 'sharp critique of society' promised in the exhibition's notes, either. There is a huge amount to enjoy in both Crumb’s art. An enormous amount in fact. But his satire isn't really sharp. It's more scattergun. Even pathetic. And for the most part, Crumb isn't even clear on what his targets are.
Image: © Robert Crumb
Back in Australia, people had asked Crumb why he didn’t just stand firm and go through with the show. Surely he was proud of his work, they reasoned. Didn’t he think it was worth defending? They should have known better. Trying to get that kind of answer out of Crumb was as pointless as exacting wrestling holds on a scoop of ice cream. 'I can't explain why I drew all those crazy pictures', he told the press. 'I had to do it. Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me. I don't know'.
When I'd asked him a similar question, all of those years earlier, he’d said exactly the same thing: 'Maybe they should lock me up and take away my pencils'. It’s a stock response that's so polished it shines. It makes you wonder if, one day, he might get bored of saying it and try for an answer instead.
'Crumb: From the Underground to the Genesis'
Musee D'art Moderne De La Ville Paris.
Until 19 August
11 avenue du Président Wilson
Metro : Alma-Marceau or Iéna
Open Tuesday to Sunday 10h00 – 18h00, until 22h00 on Thursdays.