Ask Morgana 079: Robert Crumb

rc2Robert Crumb (1943-) is probably one of the best known satirical cartoonists in America. His work, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s drilled underneath both the mainstream culture and the counter-culture of the USA, often dragging into the light things which the satirised would much rather had remained unseen. Such unearthings including society’s overt sexism, hidden sex-obsession, and innate racism. His treatment of racism was, however, shocking in itself. It involved the deliberate use of exaggerated stereotypes of African-Americans, picked up largely from early 20c cartoonery, as though in exploring society he was digging deep within himself to ask “Am I racist too?” Although it is possible to find examples Crumb’s drawing of this rc1nature, the most extreme – a cartoon sequence where African-American characters conversed solely with the words ‘Ooga Booga’ – cannot be found. In this type of work, Crumb deliberately exposed himself to severe criticism from those who failed to understand that he was forcing his readership to face the existence of such prejudices and stereotyping, and the possibility that they shared them. The artist himself was deeply interested in 20c African-American culture, having an extensive collection of jazz and blues records from the ‘78rpm’ era. He created a set of ‘trading card’ illustrations in a realist style, of bands and solo musicians from the first half of the 20c, which are a dignified tribute to their culture.

In the area of sexuality, Robert Crumb similarly foregrounded white, male hebephilia (in ‘Honeybunch Kaminski’) and inter-generational incest (in ‘Joe Blow’). Again he indulged in self-exposure by featuring his own sexual preference for Junoesque women, drawing again and again female characters with generous hips and thighs, often morphing surreally from frame to frame.

He combined these two elements in his cartoon ‘Angelfood McSpade’, the eponymous character of which was a bare-breasted, naively optimistic woman of indeterminate African origin who was frequently taken advantage of and abused by men. Can we accuse him of objectifying his subjects? In this post are three very different examples of his illustrations of women. Top left is Eve in the Garden of Eden, with words taken from the Book of Genesis. Crumb’s Eve seems unaware of her ‘sin’, her mind seems to be somewhere else entirely. The round fruit on the tree, and in her hand and mouth, are echoes of her own full figure, and the spurt of juice or saliva is frankly suggestive. Eve has been a subject or art for centuries, but here an artist makes her a kind of casually-sexual, working-class ‘Everywoman’.

The illustration to the right is captioned ‘The artist’s model admiring her own beauty as reflected in the mirror – that soulful dark beauty which men from time immemorial have idealized’. This drawing holds up objectification in plain sight. The fully-mature model, in the cut-offs, bobby-sox, and mary-janes of the child-woman, is drawn from a low viewpoint, making her tower over the viewer, whom she is ignoring in favour of looking at herself. But as usual, Crumb’s intention is satirical.

Below is a 1973 drawing of his life-partner Aline Kominsky. In this case the subject is very specific, and the result is something atypical of Robert Crumb, inasmuch as it displays an intimate and affectionate tenderness.

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Reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions

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