Thursday, July 7, 2011

In the Likeness of God

Book of Genesis by R. Crumb

While I was on vacation, I had the opportunity to visit the San Jose Museum of Art where the exhibit "The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis" was on display. It contained the original drawn pages from which the graphic novel was created. Each page of the comprehensive fifty chapter work was exhibited. I'm not a fan of Crumb's work and I am certainly no fan of the Book of Genesis, but the show was impressive.

As regards Crumb, I've long admired his amazing skills of composition and rendering. Throughout his long career, his ability to structure a panel, within the multi-panel context of a comic book page, is awe-inspiring. However, I have a hard time reading his work because his figures are so egregiously ugly and crass. I definitely respect the skill that he uses in drawing these characters, but I find their odious appearances to be distracting and tiresome. I can only enjoy Crumb in very small doses.

However, within the Book of Genesis, these gnarly homunculi seem appropriate to the subject matter. The world of the biblical Patriarchs is crude and rough-hewn. It is a world where the "Crumb people" seem to belong. Moreover, his attention to detail creates for an immersive experience. Even the infamously tedious "Generations of So-And-So" wherein "Whats-His-Name begat Whos-That, and lived another couple hundred years" is made into an interesting read by creating veristic portraits of people living in the Bronze Age, eating, fighting, farming, dancing, or just looking tired.

That's the key to Crumb's success. The attention to the details of character and setting creates a convincing world in which the reader can easily follow the events being portrayed. The famous stories, like Noah's Flood or the Sacrifice of Isaac, are given superb treatment, but it is the obscure stories, such as Sarah joining Pharaoh's harem or the Massacre of the Shechemites, that really benefit from Crumb's meticulous attention. These are obscure stories that get lost within the rambling biblical narrative, but Crumb's ability to impart drama and significance through his illustrations make them stand out.

Book of Genesis by R. Crumb

As regard the Genesis text, it's still a horrible thing. I've had to read Genesis numerous times while pursuing my theology studies and I really detest it. However, Crumb's rendering of the text smoothed out the incoherency of the text. The images impart an empathic humanity to the characters, as detestable or immoral though they may be. Even the weird things like Lot's daughters conspiring to seduce their father or Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of "red red stuff" feels less absurd or disturbing when portrayed by Crumb's drawings.

My biggest complaint is that Crumb missed the opportunity to express the ideas of the Documentary Hypothesis in this work.

Very few people can read ancient Hebrew, but most of us can comprehend illustrations. A textual analysis of Genesis indicates that it is a compilation of smaller texts written by various authors over a vast period of time before attaining its current canonical form. The classic example of this is within the Creation narrative where the text provides two different stories that not only contradict each other but have two different narrative voices. Crumb treats the Creation as a coherent whole, whereas it would have been trivial to create visual signifiers to convey the textual incoherence. Heck, he could have just refrained from anthropomorphizing God in the first account, keeping it two the second account and the Garden of Eden story. I think that was a major missed opportunity.

Of course, there are other points that I can gripe about but they're small matters. Just to provide a few examples, Adam should be standing next to Eve during the entire Serpent discussion, Isaac doesn't return with Abraham from the Sacrifice, and the three "My Wife is My Sister" stories are actually the same story just reiterated with superficial changes, much like fairy tales of Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood, which Crumb could have made clear by making a deliberate repetition of imagery. But these are quibbles that don't really diminish the phenomenal undertaking of this comprehensive illustration.

Here's a vid providing a brief lesson of the Documentary Hypothesis. (BTW, if you're interested in learning more about the DH but don't want to plow through stuffy academic writing or put up with anti-Scriptural screeds, then I'd recommend checking out Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible. It's a well-written study of the subject geared towards a popular audience.)

But I've been distracted from talking about the exhibit. If you're a fan of Crumb's work or just an enthusiast of the fine craft of illustration, it is definitely worth your time. Crumb's meticulous inking is breath-taking in its detail. But the real star is the white-out. Crumb's creative process at work is revealed by his self-editing of the images. Be it the repositioning of an arm, the thining of a contour line, or the rearrangement of a face, you can follow his artistic choices by looking at the white-out.

Oh, and be certain to ask for a magnifying glass at the docent table. Believe me, your eyes will appreciate the reduced strain. Don't let my suffering be for naught. ;-)

Here's a link to the San Jose Museum of Art's website.

Here's a link to R. Crumb's Wikipedia page and official website.

And here's the Documentary Hypothesis Wikipedia page.


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