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Crumb’s Buxom Bimbos, Shy Nerds Set Loose in Paris Show

July 18, 2012

From the drug dens of Haight-Ashbury to the temple of modern art in Paris’s posh 16th arrondissement, Robert Crumb has made it.

The Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris has mounted a monster exhibition for the U.S. comic artist, who became famous -- some people say notorious -- as the epitome of California’s counterculture in the late 1960s.

Crumb’s cultural consecration doesn’t lack irony: He has always refused to be part of the official art scene and has never hidden his contempt for the avant-garde.

“When you look at something like Joseph Beuys, it’s so thin,” Crumb is quoted as saying by the French magazine Art Press. “It’s just an abstract idea. It’s not about any skill. There’s a kind of suspicion about skill in the fine arts world.”

His drawings are neither thin nor abstract. Delineated with forceful strokes, they look like etchings. In etchings, though, you would hardly find speech bubbles with exclamations such as “Gotcha!” “Whoop!” or “Aaaarghh!”

Crumb was born in 1943 in Philadelphia and has been living since the early 1990s in the south of France. He made his name with Fritz the Cat, Whiteman, Devil Girl, Mr. Natural and other raucously irreverent characters.

Because his books, unlike mainstream comics, didn’t shy away from depicting drug use, unorthodox sex and violence, Crumb called them “comix,” the X indicating that they were strictly for adults.

X Rating

Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 film adaptation of “Fritz the Cat” got an X rating in the U.S., the first for an animated movie.

Hollywood’s prigs weren’t the only ones to have qualms about Crumb’s work. Many women objected to being portrayed as curvaceous bimbos, evil gossip mongers or pigtailed vixens with small heads and oversized breasts and buttocks.

Men chiefly appear as muscular toughies, often in uniform, or as bespectacled nerds.

Yet Crumb also published “Kafka for Beginners” and an illustrated version of the Book of Genesis with personal annotations, a work that kept him busy for four years. The museum presents it complete in a separate room -- an odd contrast to the defiantly low-brow rest.

The show also includes album covers: Crumb has always been interested in jazz and popular music. Since the 1970s, he has been the front man of “R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders,” an old-timey string band.

His disdainful attitude toward modern art notwithstanding, the show has had respectful reviews in French newspapers. “La bande dessinee” is regarded as a serious art form in France, there’s a major comic-strip museum in Angouleme.

Some critics, however, said that 700 works by Crumb were too much of a good thing.

“Crumb: From the Underground to Genesis” runs through Aug. 19. Information: http://www.mam.paris.fr. The exhibition is supported by Credit Municipal de Paris and Sony Corp. (6758)

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on music.

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann, in Paris, at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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