Book review: Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood, provocatively beautiful

The American artist's book is at once memoir, reportage, literary description, aesthetic inquiry, road novel and romance, with the flavour of early Saul Bellow.

An Occupy demonstrator in 2011, in Zuccotti Park, New York, where artist Molly Crabapple was also an activist. Anthony Behar / Sipa Press / AP Photo
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Molly Crabapple's Drawing Blood – "the story of a girl and her sketchbook" – is at once memoir, reportage, literary description, aesthetic inquiry, road novel and romance.

Crabapple’s paintings, lying somewhere between Toulouse-Lautrec and surrealism, are increasingly celebrated. The surprise here is that her best writing is as provocatively beautiful as her visual art.

Her prose is sweet and sour in equal measure; the eye she watches with is both refined and raw. Very often she watches herself.

The comfortable clash in her personality of cynic and idealist, highbrow and lowbrow, recalls Saul Bellow’s early characters. Like Augie March, a young Molly shoplifts high-canonical texts and reads them on the elevated trains which pass above slums.

A native of New York, of a stimulating Puerto Rican (Marxist) and Jewish (artist) background, Molly nevertheless hated being a child. School diagnosed her with “oppositional defiant disorder”; by 12 she’d become a goth-punk. At 17 she was travelling in Paris and Morocco, an American on tour – “nothing but an eye, soaking up the world” – but one seeing a freshly unexotic vision.

“When you draw you are performing quietly,” she writes, “inviting strangers to engage you.” Strangers engage her, of course, wherever she is, whether she’s drawing or not, simply because she possesses (or is possessed by) an attractive female body. This she finds to be both a power and a vulnerability. The financial power leads her to pose for photo shoots.

“When I thought of every proposition and threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” And so she became “rendered into image, untouchable yet tradable”.

“Glamour” once meant “witchcraft”, Crabapple reminds us. Her artist’s love of revelatory illusion and her fascination with performers’ personalities involved her in New York’s burlesque revival. She dressed up and danced with the rest, but drew constantly, “not a performer but a spy”.

Adversarial, fiercely entrepreneurial, she established Dr Sketchy’s, a live-drawing workshop where the models posed as they chose and were “encouraged to talk back”. The idea quickly spread as far as Johannesburg and Shanghai.

Exotic dress and contrived personas permit poor girls entry to circles that would otherwise shun them. Still, they are seen by consumers of their beauty only as “wallpaper”. So now Crabapple’s art takes a decidedly political tone. Toulouse-Lautrec was “a lacerating class critic”, she reminds us, and her pictures become as darkly savage as those of George Grosz, the caricaturist of Weimar Berlin. Crabapple draws hundreds of pigs, for example, as “an apt symbol for the coke-dumb bankers who composed half of the audience”.

She constantly reinvents herself. This indicates the profound dissatisfaction which seems essential to certain artistic sensibilities.

“Raw-nerved perceptiveness is unattainable in everyday life,” she writes. And here perhaps, is why she runs from the ordinary to the marginal, strange and revolutionary, escaping versions of her self which have become stale. At the aged of 17, leaving for Paris, she gathered and burnt the photos of her childhood.

“Molly Crabapple” itself is a pseudonym – named after a character in a never-written play. “Love makes you a character,” she writes in her best aphoristic style, “Losing love kills that character.” So the book tells of the reincarnations within a single (and still short) lifetime.

This explains too, Crabapple’s love of disguise and fancy dress, and more significantly, of the deceptiveness of surfaces, the inevitable failure of true representation.

Her work acknowledges it in deliberate ink spots, blotches of colour, fertile “mistakes”.

She demonstrated against the 2003 Iraq invasion, experiencing “protest’s lovely and treacherous delusion: there are so many people – this has to work”.

In 2008 the markets crashed. Thereafter she designed posters for the Occupy movement and hung out in Zuccotti Park, drawing hippies, trades unionists, anarchist theorists and the homeless.

The story's artistic climax is Shell Game – a series of large-scale surrealist political paintings synthesising Crabapple's experiences of protest and performance. Commenting on the cash economy, the paintings were displayed above a claw-foot bathtub filled with "hundreds of green bills graven with cats and tentacles".

The narrative, meanwhile, continues to expand in scope – to bankrupt Greece, tormented Syria and Guantanamo Bay, where the story starts and ends.

More than blood, Molly Crabapple draws connections, between class and sex, between the varied international lurchings towards freedom, and to the possibility that “art and action could infuse one another”. And so she gives a sense of our young century’s potential, more connected and more confused than ever before.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a novelist and critic and, most recently, the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.