Bizarre, playful, and abstract are just a few of the words that come to mind when admiring the work of Herbert Crowley. In his lifetime, Crowley exhibited artwork alongside Picasso, Van Gogh, and Renoir. And yet, Crowley’s work has been largely forgotten by popular culture. The Temple of Silence: Forgotten Works & Worlds of Herbert Crowley is a rare glimpse into the life and art of an elusive figure.
Before delving into this work one unavoidable topic must be bridged: this is not a graphic novel. This is very distinctly an art book that, if we are going by the Dewey Decimal System, belongs in the good ol’ 745s. Yes, the text does contain comic strips. However, the majority of the text is dedicated to a biography of Herbert Crowley, scattered between images of Crowley’s distinct sculpture work, bohemian friends, and early sketches. Now, onto business.
Crowley is most notable for his Symbolist cartoon strip; The Wigglemuch, which ran in the New York Herald in 1910 for only fourteen weeks before disappearing from the Sunday pages. The appeal of Crowley’s work seems to derive primarily from both the nihilistic, yet beautiful, tone of much of his artwork, paired with the understated nature of the creator. These elements culminate into what is the perfect example of an Outsider artist, also defined as an artist who works outside of the establishment.
Described by creator Justin Duerr as a “magical mascot” in Herbert Crowley’s art, the Wigglemuch are rotund, animal-like creatures serving to accompany their human companions across landscapes rooted both in fantasy and in historical imagery. Quite frankly, the drawings are gorgeous. Crowley was known for his scrupulous work and obsessive attention to detail. Upon first glance, Crowley’s artwork appears to be relatively simplistic. His human figures mimic the form of paper dolls in a toy theater. His landscapes often contain no more than a clear sky and a distant mountain range. And, yet, upon closer observation, intricate lining, near-perfect circles, and subtle emotional gestures abound. As expected in any competent comic strip, the captioning of each panel adds to the complexity of these images.
In true Symbolist fashion, the story in these comics is told indirectly. There is no punchline. The Wigglemuch is strictly a series of actions written in verse, allowing for interpretation by the reader. The creatures of The Wigglemuch, referred to as both ‘Wigglemuch’ and ‘Wiggles’ are thrust into a series of concurrent adventures requiring liberation from their circumstances. This is, perhaps, consistent with Crowley’s constant financial struggle as a visual artist and ongoing suicide ideation. Either way, readers of The Wigglemuch are sure to find meaning in Crowley’s work.
Duerr is clearly passionate about the work of Crowley and this passion transcends the pages of The Temple of Silence. The curation of Duerr’s research and Crowley’s artwork is stunning. I was wholly engrossed by Duerr’s enthusiasm and look forward to his forthcoming work. The Temple of Silence: Forgotten Works and Worlds of Herbert Crowley is an essential collection title for those interested in Outsider art and 20th century art movements. However, the book is not a necessary addition to a graphic novel collection.
By Justin Duerr
Art by Herbert Crowley
BeeHive Books, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 18+