From the VAULT: Gilray vs Crumb Cartoon Showdown
In this extract from Large magazine two notorious and influential cartoonists are presented for your judgemental candour: the visual satirist, James Gillray, and the illustrative stylist, Robert Crumb. Viciously fighting and melding beautifully, much like a boy that’s developed Stockholm Syndrome with his man-captor, we leave it up to you to decide the victor/im.
James Gillray (1756–1815)
Gillray was one of the first professional caricaturists, an artist whose command of satire and master- draughtsmanship helped found the tradition of the political cartoon. Gillray learned his trade as an engraver’s apprentice, and later as a student of engraving at the Royal Academy, then under the presidency of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Incidentally, Gillray’s attendance at the academy overlapped with that of William Blake. Gillray began selling his first caricatures while still a student: “At first the most note-worthy were concerned with the brothel and the privy, but politics gradually began to intrude.” To begin with, it seems that Gillray considered his caricatures to be an interim money-earner, while he pursued more serious artistic goals. During the 1780s, he worked for a number of publishers and accepted commissions from all-comers, attacking Whigs and Tories alike with equal venom.
After a series of disappointing encounters with the artistic establishment, Gillray eventually came to realise that caricature was his vocation, and this shows in a more meticulous quality seen in work from the early 1790s onward, and in the fact that he began to sign his more important plates Js. Gy. This change coincided with the beginning of Gillray’s exclusive affiliation with the publisher and print-shop proprietress Hannah Humphrey, a maiden lady who preferred to be known as Mrs Humphrey, she was some years older than Gillray, although her debut as a professional print seller coincides with their first association in 1779. A large proportion of Gillray’s satires in the early 1790s were directed at the royal family. Even though some of these were of an unprecedented savagery, and on occasion caused genuine offence, they were more or less tolerated (and sometimes even admired) at court. A contemporary account notes that George III collected caricatures, which were about himself, and viewed them with patient good will, but that the Prince of Wales (later George IV) was less tolerant. Even so, an account was maintained on the Prince’s behalf at Mrs Humphrey’s shop from 1803 onward.
In his biography of Gillray, Draper Hill writes “According to the natural order of things, a satiric temperament seems to impel its possessor to the left, towards a philosophy of social justice – in Gillray’s case, this development was partially blocked by the Reign of Terror [in post-revolutionary France], which stifled any visible Republican leanings and obliged him to join in a defence of the status quo”. The situation in France had not preoccupied Gillray until the Revolution entered its radical phase in the autumn of 1792: the Jacobin regime and its successors aroused a deeply felt antipathy in the caricaturist, one that provoked some of his bluntest and harshest satires. The growing hostility between Britain and France, and the attendant “threat to national security” meanwhile awakened Gillray’s latent sense of patriotism. These factors partly explain a shift in the tenor of Gillray’s output toward the political right in the mid-1790s. A good many of the designs in Gillray’s prints were executed after requests and suggestions from amateur satirists, gentlemen who would pay to see their wit given the Gillray treatment. One such gentleman who became friendly with Gillray was the Rev John Sneyd, MA, Rector of Elford near Lichfield. Sneyd was also a close friend of George Canning, an ambitious young Tory politician. Canning shared Sneyd’s taste for caricature and his talent for satire. He was also keenly aware of the value of publicity, and tried to use his indirect connection with Gillray to get himself featured in one of the caricaturist’s prints, which by that time was a sure sign of having arrived politically. Gillray was reluctant to do this at first, perhaps sensing little satiric capital in the political newcomer but, some months after Canning had gained office as an undersecretary in the Foreign Office (early in 1796), his face began to show up in a few of Gillray’s prints. In the course of their overtures to Gillray in 1795 and 1796, Sneyd and Canning had gradually succeeded in gaining both Gillray’s attention and his respect. Canning, and those in his circle, came to exert a distinct influence on the content of Gillray’s satires. In 1797, Canning secretly helped set up a stridently reactionary weekly journal titled The Anti- Jacobin. One of the journal’s chief contributors was an old schoolmate of Canning’s called John Hookham Frere. Frere roped in Sneyd to ask Gillray to put out prints that would complement the screeds in the journal. Gillray obliged, although there were occasions when the unrestrained malice of his unsubtle contributions backfired on the Anti-Jacobin’s backers. By the end of 1797, Canning’s influence over Gillray had solidified into financial form in the shape of a regular pension. “From this time forward, Gillray shows a considerable gain in political awareness, particularly with regard to foreign affairs. Attacks on royalty, which had been declining in number and vehemence, were now discontinued.”
By the end of the 1790s, Gillray had long since ceased to view his work with cynical or mercenary ambivalence. Instead, he had come to look upon his political satires as a kind of public service and justified them as a patriot’s duty. In 1800, when his integrity was called into question during a protracted financial and legal dispute over an abortive commission to supply a portfolio of prints to accompany a planned follow-up to the Anti-Jacobin, Gillray seems to have been genuinely distraught that an opportunity “to serve a Cause which I thought myself honor’d in suffering every disadvantage for” had come to nothing. He complained that to have had his motives impugned in the matter “hurt me beyond anything I have met with, during a life made up of hardships and disappointments.”
A substantial proportion of Gillray’s caricatures were not political at all, but instead poked fun at the vagaries of fashion, and at the social mores and the principal personalities of his day. Gillray had a keen sense of what made people laugh, “despite the fact that his humour is not particularly remarkable for its warmth, or charity.”
There are few accounts of Gillray’s personality, and those few often contradict each other. But there is good evidence to suggest that he suffered from bouts of depression and maudlin hypochondria. In his book, Draper Hill plausibly suggests that Gillray had a deep-seated and morbid fear of losing his sight and that when his sight indeed began to fail after 1806 this paved the way for the breakdown that followed in 1809. Gillray lived on for another six years, more or less insane, in the care of Mrs Humphrey. He died, possibly from suicide (there are contradictory accounts of his death) in 1815. One of his last known drawings is titled Pray Pity the Sorrows of a Poor, Blind Man. ✹
A Flawed Mirror: The persuasive world of Robert Crumb
By Douglas Max Utter
One night toward the end of 1966, I spent an hour or two with R. Crumb, the soon-to-be legendary cartoonist. I wasn’t yet sixteen; Crumb would have been around 23. At that time he was married to a girl named Dana Morgan, and the two of them were poised to shake the dust of Cleveland forever from their heels. An iconic Crumb drawing from the ‘Keep On Truckin’ period shows him as he saw himself then, scrawny and nerdy, levitating toward San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Exuberant proto-hippie chicks and unfettered expression beckoned him on, an unlikely recruit to the shagadelic armies of the Summer of Love. But at that moment in 1966, he was winding up a stint at American Greetings, drawing user-friendly greeting cards under the direction of his boss Tom Wilson (later of Ziggy fame). As it happened, Dana’s brother was a guy I’d known since kindergarten. For some unknown reason, it occurred to him to invite me over to his brother-in-law’s to check out his cartoons.
Robert and Dana lived in a seedy-looking apartment on Carnegie Avenue. Of course none of us knew that some of the sketchbooks I saw that night would be traded much later for a villa in the south of France. If Crumb were to revisit his old university circle haunts now he could draw a satisfyingly ironic scene: the building was demolished sometime in the late 1970s and the lot is a city side park. Across Stokes Boulevard, the venerable Tudor Arms Hotel has become headquarters for the Cleveland Job Corps. Two blocks away the site of the 1960s club La Cave, where Odetta and Bob Seeger and Tom Paxton performed, has been consumed by the ever-voracious Cleveland Clinic, as have all signs that this general area was once a haven for beatniks like Crumb. I suppose the true-blue beats and Crumb himself would be relieved at the absence of commemorative plaques.
Crumb’s place was sparsely furnished, orderly and clean. The artist wore his trademark heavy-rimmed glasses, but I remember him as far more prepossessing than his self-caricatures. Clean-shaven and painfully thin, he had a touch of draughtsman’s scoliosis and a vaguely fanatical pallor – a romantic figure in his way. We sat on something Danish-modern, and drank tea. Presently, Crumb brought out a pile of notebook-size comics and sketches from an adjoining room, including his Fritz the Cat books. They weren’t published yet, so these were the hand-inked and coloured originals. Considering the standard, off-the-drugstore-shelf size of the hundreds of panels, the detail and expressiveness of Crumb’s drawings were astounding. And as R. Crumb readers everywhere have known for the past 40 years, that was the least of it. Fritz was scruffily cute, but as storylines progressed and the tomcat’s striped tie worked its way out of alignment, his leers, fears and stoned enthusiasms grew to be larger than life. Fritz was a combination of cool cat and middle-class kid, often out of his depth in his pursuit of such urban desiderata as booze, drugs, and sleazeball gal-animals of various species. Elaborate paranoid fantasies played themselves out, complete with crowd scenes and political subplots. Racism, drug addiction, urban blight and the cold war were among the elements of a nightmare vision of contemporary life unlike anything I’d ever seen. These were in no sense cartoons as I had experienced them. There were echoes of Pogo, Lil Abner, Little Lulu, and Dick Tracy. Dr Seuss, early Disney, maybe even the Katzenjammer Kids were buried somewhere in the pre-history of Crumb’s dynamic, densely crosshatched depictions. But such associations only underscored the sheer squalor of Crumb’s powerful vision. Crumb’s demented narratives rolled along, collecting a weight of pessimism heavy enough to crush the unwary reader. Like any kid raised in the 50s and 60s, I was familiar with the closest precursor to Crumb’s work. No sleepover or school locker was complete without a few tattered issues of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine. I learned later that Crumb had actually worked as Kurtzman’s assistant on another zine of the period called Help! along with future Monty Python celeb Terry Gilliam. Not even the scrofulous adolescent skepticism of Mad, however, could compare with Crumb’s hot pursuit of moral decay. Within two years his imagery was everywhere. The cartoon cover for Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills album was as unavoidable as Sgt Pepper. Crumb’s Zap Comics character, Mr Natural, was right up there with the Maharishi as one the counterculture’s most high profile bogus spiritual advisors. As for Fritz, in 1970 he became the subject of Ralph Bakshi’s trashy x-rated feature-length movies Fritz the Cat, Parts One and Two (Crumb was so disgusted with the cat thing he eventually had Fritz murdered with an ice-pick). The weirdly excellent 1995 movie, Crumb, directed by Crumb family friend Terry Zwigoff, made a splash in film circles. In the intervening decades, Crumb has continued to produce a vast swamp of images, from the first irascible issue of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor to his own ongoing autobiographical cartoon series titled Self Loathing. His Rapidograph has been in constant motion since early childhood, when his older brother Charles bullied him into illustrating Treasure Island for his own obsessive sexual reasons. Lately, living in the French town of Sauve, Crumb has spent a lot of time at restaurants, usually in the company of friends; he passes the time by sketching these people, and whatever else comes to mind, on placemats. So far, two volumes of placemat drawings have appeared in print under the title Waiting For Food.
An exhibit at Daniel Weinberg Gallery in Los Angeles was made up largely of a selection of these drawings, supplemented by a random group of book cover illustrations and sketches. Whether or not Crumb has mellowed, the unedgy works at Weinberg are first of all notable for their charm. There are studies of wife Aline decked out in haute couture gowns and shoes that appeared on the pages of the New York Times, poignant depictions of his buddy Charles Bukowski and a few earlier works still in the artist’s possession. The placemat pieces in particular are intriguing. The quirkiness of Crumb’s off-the-cuff preoccupations becomes tinged with melancholy, as one realises they are so clearly the memories and reflections of an ex-patriot. Some depict music legends like The Notorious Genna Brothers strumming their banjos or 1940s cowboy singer Al Dexter. In Crumb’s half-length version, the late great Dexter holds a guitar and squints stonily, his psychopathic sang froid shading the title of that hit number, Pistol Packin’ Mama. Hanging nearby, a masterful study of Fanny Brice reminds us how remarkable a portraitist Crumb can be. A small drawing of a mildly disaffected cat, Bernie in the Morning Wanting Some Attention, stretches its paw at us, recreating a private moment even as it inevitably recalls Fritz – who was once Fred, Crumb’s childhood pet. On another wall, I was surprised to find a late-1960s-era portrait of Dana Morgan; looking very much as she had the night I met her. Everything is unmistakably, irredeemably Crumb whose eye and hand are like a deliberately flawed mirror. The quality of caricature has become merely an inevitable condition of Crumb’s drawings, a stylistic burden that recalls his very public and influential presence. But whether despite or on account of being so exaggeratedly egocentric in this way, Crumb’s most casual drawings (like Daumier’s or Goya’s) convey an immediate, vivid relationship to their subjects. Crumb’s hard-won, endlessly articulated subjectivity remakes the world as if on stage, playing to all our fabrications in the shrouded comic pages of the brain. ★