Book: The Economist - 2016-01-09

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Illustrations from the edge

When anger turns to ink

A coming-of-age memoir by an artist enraged

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Rewriting history

Drawing Blood. By Molly Crabapple. Harper; 352 pages, $29.99 and £20.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE is an angry young woman. The 32-year-old American illustrator is a cross between a photojournalist chasing hot spots and a 19th-century écrivain engagé who champions causes with art. Her drawings of the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011 became the visual anthem of the movement. She has applied her dark, curvy illustrative style to document Guantánamo prisoners, Libyan snipers, gay refugees in Beirut and protesters of police violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ms Crabapple has already published two volumes of her artwork. “Drawing Blood” is a personal narrative of her maturation as an artist. Born Jennifer Caban in Far Rockaway, Queens, she always sought to shed childhood. At 17 she gathered every photo of her younger self, burned them, and the next day left for Europe and north Africa with pen and pad. Her adopted name comes from a character modelled after her in a play written by a friend.  

In New York in the 2000s she could not sell her art, so she sold herself. She worked as a nude for clubs, private parties, music videos, art classes and amateur “photographers” (essentially, live porn). Her proximity to the steamier parts of the city eventually got her into the Box—a Manhattan nightclub infamous for its secretive, highly sexualised burlesque—where Ms Crabapple became the in-house artist; a modern-day Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Box was Ms Crabapple’s artistic boot camp, not simply to depict the surreal, but to capture the asymmetries of power: bankers quaffing pricey champagne while the true gods, in her view, were the naked performers. In time, she grew disillusioned with her decadent, sexualised art that in effect prostituted her talents. She burned to put her nib to political and social issues. When the Occupy movement sprang up, she became its unofficial chronicler. Since then she has journeyed into dark corners to document people’s plights for Vice, Fusion and the New York Times—giving victims not just a voice, but a face.

“Drawing Blood” sparkles as an artistic coming-of-age memoir of an artist who represents her generation as much as depicts it. Some readers may be shocked by her walk on the wild side. Like Joan Didion, another American writer, Ms Crabapple’s toughness comes from her willingness to accept her vulnerability as much as from her talent and unique eye. “Drawings, like photojournalism, [can] distil the essential,” she writes. “Unlike photography, though, visual art has no pretence of objectivity. It is joyfully, defiantly subjective. Its truth is individual.”


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