Last week Matthias Wivel discussed Crumb’s Genesis in relation to the work of Rembrandt and Breughel. Matthias argued in particular that Rembrandt’s engagement with Biblical themes

is clearly more sophisticated, dedicated and emotionally complex than Crumb’s Genesis, but it is nevertheless instructive to compare the two, because of the intersection of their methods and goals.

Like Bruegel and Rembrandt, Crumb is a humanist (in the modern as opposed to the renaissance sense of the word), observant of human behavior and—as his richly varied sketchbooks demonstrate—clearly attentive to the world around him….

Matthias discusses at some length what he finds valuable in Crumb’s Genesis…and I’ve talked about my own reservations about the book elsewhere as well. In fact, I talked about them so much that I have more or less pissed everyone off, so I thought perhaps I’d give it a rest for a post. But I love that Rembrandt illustration that Matthias introduced me to in his essay, so I thought for a change I’d talk briefly about what I find so striking about the image.

In the first place, the thing that gets me initially isn’t exactly the fact that it’s attentive to the world. On the contrary, it’s the quickness of the sketch; the way you can almost see Rembrandt’s hand scribbling forms out of nothing. It’s only secondarily that Abraham’s face leaps out with its half-quizzical, half-stricken expression…that face being the only thing in the drawing (besides perhaps the angel’s right hand) which seems finished. The drawing seems to have happened so quickly that you almost wonder if Abraham is reacting to the angel’s words or to the shock of materializing. It’s as if he’s just been suddenly and surprisingly beamed onto the planet.

The angel is even sketchier than Abraham — his one wing is actually transparent, and through it we see the other, which is little more than a child’s scribble. His left hand is a misshapen paw; you get the sense that if we could see his face, it would be little more than an indistinct mass (maybe *that’s* why Abraham looks distrubed!)

Of course, we can’t actually see the angel’s face, because Rembrandt has positioned us behind his shoulder. The angel is doubly obscured; he’s half-formed with his perhaps nonexistent features in shadow. We can’t see the angel and we can’t see what Rembrandt sees in the angel. The composition, the technique, and the insistent focus on the process of creation all seem to emphasize the mystery that Abraham confronts. Because of all of that, this drawing does not seem to me to be humanist — or not solely humanist. Instead, it sets a powerfully imagined human against a perhaps even more powerfully imagined something else, which is presented as both a reality (that incongruously solid right hand) and a question.

Matthias in his essay argued that visuals are potentially more ambiguous than words, and I certainly feel here that the drawing is about its own spaces. Who made the face of Abraham? What is the face of God? Where are we in this picture, and what would we see if the angel turned towards us? And perhaps most insistently (if this is showing us the moment after the interrupted sacrifice) where is Isaac? What is he doing, what does he feel? Presumably he’s just outside the sketch, swallowed in the blankness the picture comes out of and goes into. The sacrifice is as unknowable as God himself — perhaps because, in a Christian context, the sacrifice and God are the same.

It’s possible that I’ve completely muddled what’s happening here — I’m neither a Biblical scholar nor a Rembrandt scholar, and my ignorance is sufficient that I’m not (as I indicated) even positive that this is supposed to represent the post-sacrificial moment. (Hopefully Matthias will let me know where I’ve gone astray.) But I feel like Rembrandt’s drawing is, as Matthias says, a visual exegesis — that it demands a conversation. Abraham is preparing to talk to us, as well as to his creator. It’s not a comic, so there aren’t any words, but the picture speaks.

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Update: This is part of a roundtable on Crumb’s Genesis. The whole discussion is here.

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