A striking homage to an all-but-unknown artist for whom the word “eccentric” is only a beginning.
Born in London, Herbert Crowley (1873-1937) set out to be an opera singer only to discover that “he didn’t have the constitution or the personality of a performer.” As Philadelphia-based artist and scholar Duerr writes, he wound up “in Costa Rica overseeing the loading of banana stalks at a plantation owned by the United Fruit Company.” He didn’t last long, departing for New York and arriving there wearing a tropical-weight suit in winter. Crowley somehow made his way as an artist during the first decade of the 20th century; he was a member of the avant-garde that would have a brilliant moment in the Armory Show of 1913. Before that, though, he had a brief burst of renown with an odd Sunday cartoon featuring a roly-poly character called the Wigglemuch, which appeared in the New York Herald over 14 weeks in 1910 before abruptly disappearing. Duerr hazards the guess that two strips showing a Wigglemuch being fattened for slaughter “may have finally become too outré for the Herald,” while also allowing that Crowley may not have been the deadline-meeting type. Over the next years, as Duerr records, Crowley kept busy painting, drawing, and sculpting while coming into the orbit of C.G. Jung; he died in Switzerland, and many of his pieces were tossed into Lake Maggiore. Much of what remains is gathered in this elegant, oversized volume, which includes the run of the Wigglemuch series and much more, including some haunting sculptures that resemble the work of the classic Olmec artists by way of H.P. Lovecraft. The book makes a solid case for Crowley as a forerunner of the R. Crumb school of comix half a century later, and admirers of Crumb as well as nearer contemporaries such as George Herriman will find it a revelation.
A surrealistic, sometimes unsettling pleasure for fans of the avant-garde and an obvious labor of love for all concerned.