The Bible Illuminated, showing at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, is not about old gilded manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Instead, the illumination is by America’s most notorious cartoonist, R. Crumb, who was in the forefront of “underground” cartooning in the late 1960s.
For those who are not strict in their religious devotion, this exhibit is actually a refreshing look at the Book of Genesis. Crumb has illustrated every chapter and verse in the book, from “And the earth was without form” to the death and burial of Joseph. It’s along the lines of the old Classics Illustrated comic books some of us may remember. The text is a composite of some King James language and a modern translation by Robert Alter. Crumb reportedly found it “more Biblical” to retain archaic expressions like “Behold!” instead of “Look!,” but the more modernized passages help us to understand, for example, how many Old Testament names are actually puns in Hebrew.
But it’s the illustrations—the comic book format, with Crumb’s patented Bigfoot style—that may still give pause to even a liberal artgoer. Consider that according to Biblical scholars and historians, the book of Genesis was actually written relatively late, drawing upon Babylonian myth and legends from a number of cultures. In the introduction to the book that accompanies the exhibit, Crumb writes that he believes the Bible to “be the words of men,” rather than the Word of God. He apologizes in advance to anyone who “might be offended,” as he regarded the project as “a straight illustration job.”
And it helps to remember that Genesis is a collection of stories about people living in a pastoral and politically unstructured environment, who behave rudely and even savagely. Lying, deception, back-stabbing, incest, rape, adultery, dysfunctional families—Genesis outranks any and all soap operas and tabloids in terms of scandalous conduct.
So here it all is, visualized by Crumb in black ink, abetted by highlights done with “plenty of white-out.” God (portrayed as a bearded old white man because that’s the stereotypical image) creates Adam and Eve. The Serpent (initially a lizard-like creature) tempts Eve, and is punished by being transformed into the limbless reptile we know. Noah escapes the Flood and invents wine, gets plastered, and embarrasses his sons by dancing around naked. Lot’s daughters seduce him. Tamar disguises herself as a harlot to manipulate her father-in-law. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers. There’s fairly explicit sex (although not as literally graphic as in Crumb’s Zap Comix days) and much violence (also not too explicit). For aficionados of Crumb’s caricature style, there are plenty of voluptuous women and geeky hairy men.
All in all, The Bible Illuminated may be your most lucid experience of the stories in Genesis, and if some of it brings out the humor, well, why shouldn’t religion bring a smile to the face?
The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, runs through February 7, 2010, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, 310.443.7016.
Contact Lynne Bronstein