Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis" Tour at the Hammer Museum

By Alison Leonard

Do you recognize the name Robert Crumb? No? Crumb is famous as a subversive comic strip artist whose work was mostly in the public eye during the late 1960's and early 70's. Crumb is perhaps most famous for his artwork and associated slogan, "Keep on Truckin'!," originally published in underground Zap Comics in 1968.

ALASC Co-Chair Susie Quinn helped organize a tour at the Hammer Museum of the exhibit, "The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis." The exhibit featured all 207 original panels from Crumb’s new graphic novel entitled, "The Book of Genesis Illustrated." The exhibit was displayed in a circular room that contained a smaller circle within it. The black and white comic panels covered all the walls. The tour was led by Danica Gomes, UCLA Art History major and Student Educator at the Hammer Museum. After the tour, the group gathered in the museum's courtyard for lunch at the Hammer Cafe.

Crumb stayed true to the story of the Book of Genesis using several sources, including the King James Version of the Bible, but mostly Robert Alter’s recent 2004 translation of "The Five Books of Moses." Crumb concludes his colossal project with an eight-page commentary in which he states, "In setting out to illustrate the Book of Genesis, I quickly learned that I had to read the text very carefully and closely in order to render as accurately as possible the words that were actually written there."

He goes on to say, "If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can't please everybody."

Pleasing everyone, or anybody for that matter, was never what Crumb was about. He is frequently criticized for his obsession of overly sexual images of women often portrayed in submissive roles.

This project is not a departure from the raunchy material followers of Crumb are used to seeing. The biblical storyline in the Book of Genesis lends itself to Crumb’s appreciation of sex and violence. In an NPR interview he said he focused on the illustrations because, "...the stories are so strange it doesn’t need satirizing…it stands up on its own as a comic book."

Crumb drew in black and white ink, complete with the use of plenty of White-Out®. The project took four years to complete, and on average, Crumb did one page every three days with about six to eight vignettes per page. His wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, remarked that the project required him to go into “monastic isolation” to complete. However, the end result of his efforts was the completion of all 50 chapters of Genesis in just 224 pages, in what may go on to become the most definitive version of the illustrated book of Genesis.

During the project, Crumb pondered his rendition of God. He considered varied images including a woman and the patriarchal Charlton Heston-like version. His decision to settle on the latter came to him in a dream. Crumb is fuzzy when it comes to reasons about why he embarked on the project. He started by drawing a satirical version of Adam and Eve and apparently at some point, the project evolved from there. A neighbor may have pushed him to do more, as he recalls. But before the project was even completed, Crumb said, "I am completely sick of the Bible. I began to hate it when I started working on it. I’ve had my fill. The idea that millions of people have taken it so seriously – is totally nuts. The human race is crazy." That definitely sounds like something Crumb would say.

Hollywood and the art world have tried again and again to embrace Crumb in various ways. But Crumb does not always answer the art world’s call. However, it seems his work has made it to the Hammer Museum one way or another. I also discovered that the founder of the underground comic movement somehow decided that the Internet is good enough for him. You can check out his site and items he has for sale there at

Alison has a background in fundraising with Haiti Democracy Project, Meridian International Center-a contractor for the U.S. Department of State and WNVC International Public Television. Alison holds an undergraduate degree in history from Virginia Tech, and a Masters in International Transactions from George Mason, which included study abroad at Oxford in England. She enjoys swimming laps, biking and hiking.

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