His LSD-inspired heroes, rampant sex and frontal assaults on political correctness made comic artist Robert Crumb an icon of US counter-culture, but why on earth, he wonders, put his work on show in a museum?
Crumb’s cult universe, from hippy-era characters like “Fritz the Cat” to his cartoon take on the Bible, is on show — uncensored — until August at Paris’ Museum of Modern Art, hosting the largest-ever retrospective of his work.
Starting with the underground magazine “Zap Comix”, whose first issue Crumb sold on the streets of San Francisco in 1968, the show traces his career up to and beyond his 2009 reworking of “The Book of Genesis”, displayed in full.
“Crumb was totally in tune with the spirit of his times,” curator Sebastien Gokalp told AFP ahead of the Friday opening. “A whole world of hippy culture found a visual expression with him, just as rock found a sound with the Stones or Bob Dylan.”
Under the spoof disclaimer, “For Adult Intellectuals Only”, Crumb “dealt with issues that touched everyone at the time, but that no one was talking about: love, sex, drugs, violence,” he said.
Many of the 600 works on display are original drawings shown for the first time, loaned by a handful of private collectors in Europe and the United States.
“It’s a big deal, I’m impressed and I’m somewhat bewildered,” the 68-year-old Crumb told a press conference ahead of the Friday opening. “I never thought about being in museums, the book was always the most important for me.”
“But my wife is deeply impressed,” he teased. “She put on her best, most glamorous, outfit for the vernissage last night!”
Crumb and his wife Aline travelled up to Paris for the occasion from the village of Sauve in southern France, where they have lived a quietly eccentric existence these past 21 years, in an old house by the river’s edge.
They also brought along half their village — around 50 people, from children to beret-wearing old men — who mingled with hotshot art dealers and gallery owners, sipping champagne and nibbling canapes at the VIP vernissage.
Aline Kominsky-Crumb sat front row the next day at the press conference, 64 but looking a generation younger in short black dress, orange tights, with long auburn hair and a nose ring, piping up brightly whenever her husband’s answers fell short.
The secret to her youthful looks? “Twenty-five years of yoga.” A cartoonist like Crumb, she teaches a local yoga class, and has converted half the women in their village to the practice.
Crumb claims not to speak French, and still cultivates a distance from French culture despite two decades in the country.
“Most of my work is still referential to America,” said the artist, who follows his country’s “absurd” politics from afar, with a conspiracy-theorist’s suspicion that sends him digging constantly for alternative sources of news.
But Aline suggests he has been changed more than he lets on by life away from the United States, where “you are bombarded my media and distraction”.
“He eats really well, he lives really differently,” she told AFP. “He’s gotten into different kinds of long, deep projects. I don’t think he ever would have done ‘Genesis’ if we’d stayed in America.”
Despite living away from the crowds, Crumb says fame has cost him some of his youthful spontaneity: he had to drop his habit of doodling on napkins once they started selling for a high price.
“Cafe owners would be hovering to snatch them up the moment he finished,” Aline recalled.
When one of his drawings sold for 100,000 dollars he was amazed — though he puts that in perspective compared to “five million dollars for a Cy Twombly, which to me just looked like scribbles by a two-year-old child!”
Worried they may have gone too mainstream after the success of “Genesis”, Aline decided it was time for something more daring: the result is a book about senior sex, based on their own love life, released last year under the French title “Parle Moi d’Amour”.
One gem in the Paris show pictures Aline — her strong legs and sexy, confident demeanour summing up his ideal woman — posing in front of his cherished 6,000-strong collection of old 78 rpm records.
The exhibit also includes two deeply controversial comic strips, called “When the Niggers take Over America” and “When the Goddam Jews take over America” — intended as a satire on racial prejudice but which caused a furore.
“Even Art Spiegelman,” who famously tackled the Holocaust in his comic work “Maus”, “told Crumb this time he had gone too far,” said Gokalp.
But the artist’s trademark up until this day, he said, is his “absolute lack of self-censorship.”
That candour was obvious again in Paris as the Crumbs merrily answered a question about the 1970s-style “open marriage” which they share.
“We managed to work it out somehow, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” was Aline’s verdict. “It’s far too time-consuming!”
(image via Flickr Commons)