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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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I’m a fan of the Barnes. When Lesley and I spent a recent weekend visiting our kids (who, by happy coincidence, have both been living in Philadelphia for the past three and some years), we visited the museum. It was Lesley’s first time, Cameron’s and my second, and Madeleine — well, she stayed home for a well-earned nap. She had already gone five times. Also, the collection far surpasses the recommended dose of Renoir. It’s similarly Cezanne-heavy, with Matisse in a close third, but their work doesn’t leave me with same mixture of fascination and ick. I don’t recall my first reaction, but this time I couldn’t get R. Crumb out of my head.

I’ve since been googling to see if I’m alone in this mental juxtaposition. So far, no similar results, so I’ll offer my own.

Peter Schjeldahl’s 2019 New Yorker essay “Renoir’s Problem Nudes” begins:

“Who doesn’t have a problem with Pierre-Auguste Renoir? A tremendously engaging show that centers on the painter’s prodigious output of female nudes, ‘Renoir: The Body, the Senses,’ at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sparks a sense of crisis. The reputation of the once exalted, still unshakably canonical, Impressionist has fallen on difficult days. Never mind the affront to latter-day educated tastes of a painting style so sugary that it imperils your mind’s incisors; there’s a more burning issue.”

Now consider a similar paragraph from Ian McQuaid’s 2016 essay on Robert Crumb:

“Crumb’s depiction of women remains controversial, though. His latest book, Art & Beauty – the subject of his first gallery exhibition in England, which opened on Friday at David Zwirner, is the final part of a trilogy that sees the artist pairing salivating erotic imagery with quotes from philosophers, poets and artists. It’s a mix of highbrow musings on beauty teamed with Crumb’s own typically lurid artwork. He’s spent most of his career drawing physically exaggerated women, Amazonian creatures with massive legs and powerful arms, and Art & Beauty is no deviation – although there is perhaps a greater tenderness at play than in some of his early more flagrantly pornographic work. It’s fair to say that Crumb has spent most of his career objectifying women, but this would be a more serious accusation if he did not leaven his caricatures of women by portraying himself so unflinchingly as a creep and a pervert; his work is as much about his own obsession with women as it is about the women themselves.”

Or better, consider the opening of Torey Akers’ 2019 “You Can’t Make Me Care About Renoir: Some Thoughts On Dead Sexists”:

“So, remember Pierre-Auguste Renoir? The super-dead Impressionist who painted pictures of thick ladies lounging in the woods? There’s been a lot of weird criticism circulating on the subject of Renoir’s canon status lately, and I’d like to give my two cents on why a defense of his oeuvre is not only unnecessary in 2019, but totally extraneous to the point. It’s time to talk about red herrings, reading comprehension, and, despite the best efforts of both my employer and my remaining shreds of dignity… butts. Big ones. Lots of ‘em. 

Or best of all, stop reading and just look at the two artists’ similarly distorting gaze.

I’m no particular fan of Crumb (my Intro to Comics course does not include him), but juxtaposing his scans from my google search next to crops of my snapshots of the Barnes Renoirs, I feel my appreciation for Crumb increasing — or at least remaining stable as my regard for Renoir keeps sinking. Though Crumb is the cartoonist, his drawings are elaborately detailed, and Renoir’s paintings are at least as exaggerated. I also find Crumb’s pointillistic pencil more interesting than Renoir’s brushwork. And though it’s a pointless competition, Crumb’s objectification seems more self-consciously absurd and so perhaps less insidious?

This post turned out to be a visual argument, no words necessary, but I’ll end on a reading quiz anyway.

Answer either: A) Renoir, or B) Crumb:

  • 1. In contemporary discourse, the name _______ has come to stand for ‘sexist male artist.’
  • 2. ______’s women strum no erotic nerves in me. There’s no beholding distance from their monotonously compact, rounded breasts and thunderous thighs, smushed into depthless landscapes and interiors, and thus no imaginable approach to intimacy.
  • 3. Their faces nearly always look, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb —bearing out ________’s indifference to the women as individuals with inner lives.
  • 4. _______took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at women that the tactility, the strokes like roving fingers, unsettles any kind of gaze, including the male.
  • 5.  ______ is famously said to have remarked, “I paint with my prick.”

[Answer Key: A]

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