‘Some deep, heavy Mississippi Delta type shit’ mumbled Robert Crumb, hunched over his mandolin, by way of an introduction to a song midway through his performance at the opening of his exhibition at David Zwirner. This is the sort of music Crumb plays with Eden and John’s East River String Band – covers of old country blues tunes. This style of music is a passion of Crumb’s (the cartoonist and musician is said to own over 7,000 records) that runs alongside the comics for which he is better known. His other passion, which he frequently chooses as a subject for his comics, and which forms the focus of this exhibition, is women – specifically women with attributes that Crumb has described as the ‘bean effect’; a torso which curves forward like a kidney bean and sturdy, thick, tree trunk-like thighs and ‘asses’ that look like ‘two giant basketballs’.
In a short comic strip from the book, My Troubles With Women, Crumb explains that it was through a teenage fascination with these subjects that he learned to draw. ‘I began wasting my god-given talent drawing pictures of sexy women the way I liked ‘em…trying to capture the shape of that magnificent female ass of my dreams’. Crumb’s Art & Beauty Magazines continue this infatuation, and this exhibition is a presentation of 58 of his original drawings for all three issues of the sporadically published magazine (issue #1 came out in 1996, #2 in 2003 and #3 was published by David Zwirner Books this year).
Each issue of Art & Beauty is a compilation of Crumb’s drawings of women, taken from various sources. Some are friends (including his wife Aline, and Eden of the East River String Band); some are strangers he has encountered in person, or seen in photos; some are sports personalities and celebrities drawn from press photographs (among them, Serena Williams and Lady Gaga); a few are from life modelling classes, and others are from an early 20th-century magazine, also called Art & Beauty, which collected ‘semi-erotic images of life models for art lovers and aspiring painters’.
There is a sense of seedy voyeurism in viewing these women through Crumb’s eyes, as the objects of his fantasies, as he explains his affections in short accompanying texts:
Underneath the deceptive simplicity of the model’s attitude here, the sensitive viewer can perceive the complexity and richness of character; an imposing, implacable physical presence, a girlish wholesomeness and innocence, a serious, sober awareness, and yet a potential for sensual abandonment. All these qualities combine to endlessly fascinate the artist and challenge his powers of expression.
There is an uneasy tension, but an undeniable fascination, in looking at drawings that represent someone else’s turn-ons.
This tension is increased when you come across images whose subjects were seemingly unaware of the source photo being taken. (Crumb doesn’t seem to take the photos himself – he is famously luddite and does not own a mobile, much less a camera phone. Instead the images come from others, occasionally from women who send selfies, wanting Crumb to draw them).
One image, for example, shows the back of a woman crossing the street, closely observed and rendered through typically intense cross hatching. It is shown alongside a caption that leads you a little closer to Crumb’s position – one of veneration and appreciation for these goddess-like subjects:
In this work the artist captures that exquisitely painful moment when a males heart is pierced with longing for a vision of feminine perfection seemingly created just for him, who appears from out of nowhere in a public thoroughfare. As if pulled by a powerful magnetic force he follows her at a discreet distance until she disappears into a doorway, passing out of his life forever.
In two introductory cartoons at the start of Art & Beauty #1 and #2 Crumb depicts himself studying women in different ways. In both he is a skinny, runty, weird-looking geek –hunched over a sketchbook studying a proud naked woman in one image, and in the other, a quivering, sweating wreck who is struggling to deal with the fact that one of his goddesses has deigned to speak to him. She looks at his work, although whether she appreciates it is unclear; ‘He brought her up to his studio to show her his etchings. She: “My God! You’re obsessed!” He: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”’
‘R. Crumb: Art & Beauty’ is at David Zwirner, London, until 2 June.