26 April, 2010Issue 12.1LiteratureReligion

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Graphic Scenes from the Bible

Andrew Shah

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Robert Crumb
The Book of Genesis: Illustrated
Jonathan Cape, 2009
224 Pages
£18.99
ISBN 978-0224078092

Popularly associated with such 1960s ephemera as Fritz the Cat and the phrase “keep on truckin'”, cartoonist Robert Crumb’s place in high culture has been secure since critic Robert Hughes famously pronounced him a genius. Now in his mid-60s, Crumb appears to have accepted the mantle of Great Artist, and in keeping with tradition, has produced his own set of biblical illustrations.

For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Crumb’s early work might be said to present the contents of an unabridged id, an uncensored and impartial record of his own disquieting inner life. Violent and scatological themes predominate, with Crumb expending most of his ink on sexual fantasies (his paraphilia involving buxom women’s legs is rendered in painstaking detail). This confessional style, combined with a felicity of artistic invention, has made Crumb’s early comics a veritable visual guide to 20th-century neurosis and malaise. Entering middle age, his interests diversified, and tasteful illustrations of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and Boswell’s London Journal joined his usual catalog of zaftig Amazons and existential despair. These days Crumb has settled down, relatively speaking, and created a work that is so strange and, despite the strangeness, so full of humanity, that one hardly knows how to describe it.

To begin with, Crumb has produced a hard-back graphic novel of the first book of Moses. Genesis appears on the cover in gold-embossed Gothic script. From here, the juxtapositions get stranger. The text is a mixture of the King James Version and Robert Alter’s modern translation arranged according to Crumb’s own hermeneutic good sense (which is surprisingly well developed; the book concludes with a lengthy exegesis by Crumb). Genesis‘s primary claim to attention, other than its notorious author, is that it is the first attempt to render the entire text in graphic form. Hitherto, illustrators have been content to depict only those scenes deemed uplifting and congenial to modern sensibilities. By contrast, Crumb has graphically depicted every jot and tittle, as it were—the moral and the scandalous, the familiar and the strange. Taking a special pride in this fact, Crumb adds that he approached the task as a “strict illustration job.” And herein lies the genius of his approach: in combining two ostensibly conservative aims—rendering the entire text and doing so as literally as possible—he has produced a wholly novel and deeply radical work.

Art historian Kenneth Clark argued that a watershed in the rebirth of the Western mind occurred when painters ceased representing classical figures in contemporary costume. “As long as there was this rather comical discrepancy between the written word and the image”, wrote Clark, “antiquity couldn’t exert its humanising power on the imagination”—picture Achilles or Caesar in doublet, hose, and codpiece. Much the same argument could be made for Crumb’s Genesis. Despite our deep familiarity with biblical myths, we receive them embedded in a matrix of history and tradition, each scene encrusted with images from every school of art and interpreted to suit the shifting needs of 25 centuries’ worth of theologians (add to these figures 100 years of clean-shaven Nordic Hebrews on celluloid). Every generation arrogates the text and its characters to the exigencies of the present. Crumb’s originality lies in repudiating this doctrine and illustrating the Genesis text as closely to the author’s original vision as historical reconstruction will allow.

Crumb prepared for the Genesis project with a rabbinical seriousness, immersing himself in ancient Near Eastern literature and embarking on an anthropological crash course with several Bronze Age experts. The result is a new sort of artistic imagination whose visual idiom is rooted in the anthropological and archeological discoveries of the 20th century rather than any religious or artistic tradition. Every tunic and tent, pack animal and weather-beaten face, is the product of meticulous research (especially rewarding are the costumes and monuments of Babylon and Egypt; Crumb the antiquarian has reproduced these from original reliefs and friezes). What comes across, to an astonishing degree, is a sense of place, palpably felt, and utterly alien to our own lives and concerns. Placed in such visual proximity to its historical setting and spirit, it is impossible to view the Genesis narrative as “only” a prelude or foundation for the developments of the Axial Age. One sees, as if for the first time, a brutish tribe of desert nomads whose moral universe has more in common with the Homeric epics and Norse sagas than anything in the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition. Crumb has succeeded in letting Genesis speak for itself, and the book lives afresh with an amoral exuberance which can only be called pagan.

This pagan quality could ask for no better illustrator than Crumb, whose particular power is to convey man’s most carnal, fleshly states. Armed with a congenitally crabbed, neurotic style, he seems unable to present any idealised human form—for Crumb, the body is an all-too-corporeal aggregate of fat and hair, veins and muscle. These unidealised forms provide the perfect complement to the barbarous setting in which they find themselves.

Despite these alienating effects, the new Genesis still resounds with the humanity of the old. This surprising emotional depth is due almost entirely to Crumb’s talent for realistic portraiture. Through the idiosyncrasies of each face, he reveals a character’s inner life with startling, even lyrical detail. The full power of his inventive faculty can be found in the “begat” chapters, containing a wealth of variations on the theme of Semitic portraiture. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, Crumb has done well in choosing a subject on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of extravagance.

But what a world of interpretation the words “strict illustration job” conceal! In illuminating each story, Crumb has, perforce, supplied facial expressions where the text is mute. In preparing Isaac for sacrifice, for instance, Abraham wears an expression of ruthless determination; other artists have, with equal success, depicted the patriarch as grief-stricken, conflicted, or horrified. Here, the narrative power of his portraits betrays his best efforts at impartiality and adds an inescapable interpretive element. To his credit, he rarely departs from the least troubling interpretation, but his choice between several plausible explanations of a fundamentally ambiguous passage is never without risk.

And it is in avoiding this risk that Crumb’s “strict illustration job” meets its nemesis. Anxious to avoid the revisionism of previous illustrated bibles, he has reined in his poetic license and striven for an exact correspondence with the text. This itself presents no problem; however, he has carried his project to extremes, opting to take no stylistic liberties as well. This is a great disappointment, because there is no reason that the one should imply the other. One need only consider Rembrandt’s etchings of the Bible to realize literal depiction need not exclude creative presentation. Christ Preaching, The Entombment, and The Three Crosses are all sufficiently literal not to undermine Crumb’s devotion to historical accuracy, but are also outstanding pieces of dramatic composition. Indeed, creative use of light, shadow, space, and texture are not beyond Crumb’s power: his epic depictions of Noah’s Ark or the conflagrant Sodomites leave no doubt that he can match his style to the mood in a manner fitting Rembrandt.

Rather, his choice to illustrate the bulk of the narrative in a monotone style was deliberate and unfortunate. Surveying a page of nearly identical dialogue panels, identically crosshatched, from an identical vantage point, one feels a distinct sense of oppression. Had Crumb chosen to combine these all-but-redundant panels, he might have profited from the resultant space and created a series of truly memorable panoramic scenes. None of this would require subverting his original goals. Instead, he has produced a work whose primary religious emotion begins in inspired creativity but ends in penitential endurance.

Stylistic criticisms aside, Crumb has achieved the objectives he had set out for himself, delivering Genesis from its theological yoke and returning it to its native seat amongst desert pastoralists. It is not, however, the culminating masterpiece many had foreseen; Crumb’s Genesis is a fundamentally unrepresentative work, too repressed in tone to do justice to the Bosch of our times.

Andrew Shah is reading for a BS in Computer Science at Stanford University.