Strong, thick, beautiful women. If you’re even slightly familiar with the career of prolific, American cartoonist, Robert Crumb, you’d know that the female form has been his driving muse since the 1960’s. This motif has been presented in its most tasteful form through his “Art & Beauty Magazine” series, which began with volume one in 1996, originally printed by Kitchen Sink Press, later reprinted by FANTAGRAPHICS. Inspired by a 1920’s fashion publication of the same title, he displayed (in lack of a better descriptor) cartoon-photo-realistic drawings of women accompanied with quotes by philosophers and great artists. Compared to the large bulk of his work, “Art & Beauty” comes across as one of his most sophisticated and audience-friendly series. It is easily some of his most beautiful and technical artwork to date. But before this review goes any further, I need you to realize that while this illustrated pamphlet is without a doubt both an excellent critique and display of his artwork (and art in general), “Art & Beauty Magazine” is a book, like most of his work, made by Crumb to jack off to.
The subject material feels very “now” in this issue. Models range from Serena Williams, to Lady Gaga, to the introduction of his appreciation of the selfie. This comes as a shock considering Crumb’s widely-known distaste for technology and modernism. But as a seventy three year old man receiving naked selfies from young, beautiful women, I’m sure he was able to get over that very quickly. The drawings are taken from a mixture of these selfies, magazine photos, life drawing, and the artist’s “handy i-phone” (another shocker—both the fact that he has an I-Phone, and that he’s openly publishing, and admitting to taking candid photos which he was sexually motivated to take). The pen-work itself is absolutely supreme. His ability to depict the human form has always been on point, but the display of light and shadow in almost every illustration in number three is absolutely mind blowing. Countless tiny cross-hatch strokes have always brought a realism and atmosphere to the drawings in the “Art & Beauty” series, but his classic drawing style and narration, combined with the relatively modernist theme in number three, creates a surreal concept of a “vintage present time”.
The captions and quotes which accompany the illustrations throughout the book can be perceived in many ways. At first glance they seem like they could be the product of the enlightened mind of a once underground cartoonist turned fine-artiste. His understanding of the philosophies of art are very apparent in his selection of quotes. If most of what he chose are ideologies as to which he actually lives by, then he comes across as very centred and in tune with his creation process. On the other end of the spectrum, you could view at as Crumb’s ‘fuck you, I can do this too’ to high art. Many of the captions to his drawings come across as self-worship to the point of complete satire. The pretentiousness of the quotes may have been intentional– jokingly putting quotes by great artists like Dali and Picasso over the works of a comics artist. There is no official statement by him on the matter, and it’s completely up to us to decide. I’d like to think that it’s somewhere in between.
From a collector’s standpoint, the newest edition, number three, is a controversial book because of publishing decisions alone. The book that I am reviewing was released on December 14th, 2016. From April 15th –June 2nd 2016 the original artwork from this book and the previous two “Art & Beauty”s was featured at the David Zwerner gallery in London, England. To coincide with the debut of the exhibition, David Zwerner Books released a hardcover book collecting all three “Art & Beauty” issues, before the third instalment was ever officially released. The book that I am reviewing was published by FANTAGRAPHICS– eight months after volume three’s previous release in the hardcover book. Why would a creator or publisher print the collected format of their work before the serialized version is even available to the public? Because Robert Crumb has the comic collecting world by the balls. Most collectors would have been happy owning the three volumes of “Art & Beauty” in their individualized format, not needing the collected hardcover after owning all three, but by releasing new material through the collected version they are drastically improving the odds that collectors would purchase both versions. As to why FANTAGRAPHICS would agree to publish material that was already released eight months earlier– they must not have cared. If it was by Crumb, the people would buy it, whether they already owned it or not.
Out of the three books in the series, “Art & Beauty Magazine Number 3” is my favourite. The quotes and captions seem to match the content more suitably, making it flow nicely and adds extra flavour to the illustrations. The drawings themselves are captivating, and leave the thought of, “Can it get better than this?” or “Do I want it to get any better than this?” This is not actually a comic book, but it is a must buy for any Crumb fan, or fan of classic cartooning. While not a good introduction to Crumb as a writer, it is a brilliant showcase of his drawing ability and the idiosyncratic way in which he views the world. When it come to the logistics of what form to buy it in, if you don’t have any of the issues already, buying the hardcover isn’t a bad option– but collectors beware. You can still find copies of numbers one and two in many comic shops for less than ten dollars. The newest issue is available in shops now for only five dollars. With forty four pages of new Crumb art, at that price this comic is at an unbelievable value. High art–or the creations of a filthy old man? You decide.