When you see a slogan on an image “How you gonna crucify a child in Vietnam without any arms?” what would you think? It can be a disgust of the disturbing illustration, feeling of the utmost cruelty of the artist, or maybe you will think that war is immensely ugly and unsettling. The important thing is that it will provoke different reactions, but the image will stuck in the head for a long time. This was the goal of a cult cartoonist Ralph Steadman. The aim was to awake, to make think and draw conclusions, to change. Steadman created his first works under the pressure of transformations occurring in the post war America that influenced his work greatly and persuaded to create grotesque, monstrous and angular images.
Steadman is widely known for his partnership with the father of gonzo journalism Hunter S. Thompson. This cooperation turned into the series of works that gained popularity for Steadman around the world. Any changes of the society find its reflection in the art, transforms it and influences the minds of the observers, whether it is shocking or not. Steadman has chosen the way of provocation and scandal to give a quicker boost for moral and personal modifications of the people’s minds. He admitted that his way was not only to become a random illustrator, but to change the world. Steadman explained his attraction to the gruesome forms as a fear of life. “I suppose what I’m actually on is a frightening, paranoiac fear of life, and I exorcise that fear by drawing.” (Thompson 2)
The first work that clung together Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson was “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. 1970 was a momentous year for Steadman. He has moved to the USA from England to find a good job and his first work was to illustrate Kentucky Derby for the Scanlan’s, which was a small literary journal that needed to illustrate the famous race. Until that time Ralph Steadman neither met nor heard about Thompson and his style of work. He also was not familiar with Kentucky Derby routine. When meeting with Thompson Steadman realized that they would not see much racing. The cartoonist recalled that they were looking for strange and peculiar faces for Thompson to start his article. Their days were full of booze and chemicals that yield to a brilliant article, queer graphics and a fruitful collaboration. It is impossible not to admit that Hunter’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” was the first work marked as “gonzo” which was flagged such by the Boston Globe journalist. That characteristic glued to the writer and afterwards to the whole layer of journalism.
Steadman’s illustration leads Hunter S. Thompson work and noted as “sketched with eyebrow pencil and lipstick by Ralph Steadman”. Thompson recollected that Ralph has lost his pencil and decided to draw his illustrations by a rather creative way. “Steadman lost his pencils but made his way to the Derby. He caught up with Thompson and gave him a rap on the head and borrowed a lipstick and eyebrow pencil from a woman bettor and produced hallucinatory sketches.” (Warren 15) Alcohol and drug fueled trips led Steadman to create both queer and fascinating pieces of art evolving his personal style and features. The illustration represents a sarcastic painting of Kentucky Derby. The image is vastly caricature and skeptical. The drawing does not have any kind of a background; there are only several horizontal lines behind the main scene of the illustration. In the foreground a drawing of a racing horse stands out, it is the biggest figure of the illustration. The horse is painted partially; its head and part of the upper body have color. A racer is represented by a very tiny and obscure figure sitting on the horse, his size is intentionally reduced comparing to the scale of horse. The face of the rider is scared and tensed which were depicted by immensely big eyes and crumpled body. Left side of the drawing shows the crowd, the habitués of Kentucky Derby represented by the upper class of the society. Observation of their faces on the illustration leads to the conclusion that the hunt for the strange faces did not go in vain. All members of the crowd have unpleasant and repellent appearance, each of them is gazing with the utmost contempt and snobbery. The biggest figure of the crowd is drawn with more clarity and has various details in the structure. A man is illustrated by standing near the horse and holding the rein. What is more peculiar about the image is that both a man from the crowd and a horse has some details in common. Their genitals stand out on the picture, which are drawn with the special clarity and they also glimpse scornfully. It was not an accident that Steadman has drawn the parallels between a horse and an upper class representative. The intention was to compare a beast and a bestial essence of the so called higher society stuck in the field of bread and entertainment. It is not a coincidence to represent the rider as a tiny, frightened figure as well. The horseman personifies a regular man, a pawn in the hands of the richer ones who just performs the duties. The absence of any kind of background leads to the conclusion that the drawing can depict any kind of scene from that time reality where a horse can be just the allusion of the deprivation of the society.
There is nothing unusual in both Thompson’s work and Steadman’s illustration due to the time when they were created. The chaotic nature of the 60s led to the drastic changes in the life of Americans in the next ten years. 70s are peculiar of growing a huge disappointment in the government. The cultural hole between the upper class and the others is growing as a snow ball. The ideas of the conservatives began falling to pieces as they cannot survive under the pressure of transformations in the society. That was the time of post war reflection when women have gained new rights, environmental movement launched its path. Energy crisis led to the dramatic changes in economical, political and social spheres. Basically, the American idea of a stable and strong world of traditional values cracked. The image of a capitalist world collapsed. The emergence of skeptical views, caricatures and gonzo journalism itself were predetermined by the tendencies soaring in the air of that time.
To shift to another famous works of Ralph Steadman it is important to finish the story of the “Derby” collaboration with Thompson. Their parting was rather cold and rude as Hunter kicked the cartoonist out of the car with the loud scolding. A that point Steadman thought they would never meet again, but the destiny had its own plans. In 1972 Hunter S. Thompson wrote his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and asked Steadman to illustrate it with his own peculiar style. Among the all pieces of Steadman’s works “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” has the special status. In future the illustrator would be remembered by these pieces of illustrations. “Fear and Loathing” work include several images depicting the main heroes Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo and their hallucinations during the road trip. Their aim is to catch the infamous American Dream in the spaces of Las Vegas. A grotesque movie by Terry Gilliam with the same name has gained a cult status.
Ralph Steadman emphasized Thompson’s biting sarcasm with not less than vitriolic and grotesque drawings. With the first glimpse the images are as always rather disturbing and mostly repelling, but not devoid of meaning and social subtext. One of the illustrations depicts a casino full of monsters and beastly creatures which is also known as a Lizard Lounge. This image is representing a famous scene from the book when drugged and paranoid Raoul Duke enters a casino hall seeing only monsters around him. As it was with the “Derby” work, this one does not have any background, there are only several explanatory straight lines depicting a casino. The images of smoking, drinking and belching animals in the man’s clothes oust the whole illustration. The comparison between the works is apparent. The drawings illustrate literally self-indulged higher cluster of a society as the characters are depicted as the fat animals.
Two cars are driving alongside, two different groups of people are leading their way on the road. An obvious family and two crazy riders are just passing by each other on the way to Vegas. In this image Dr. Gonzo is spewing on the people riding in the nearby car. The drawings of Dr Gonzo and Duke in the car are the illustration of their rebellious and protestation nature. However, their protests were reinforced by the strong usage of various chemicals and booze that can raise the issue of the strong connection between substances abuse and a protest. At the same time, a recollection of that time’s peculiarities and the specific transformations underwent by American society designs a specific structure when only chemicals could help to go through. It was the time of coke, pot and LSD with the huge inclusions of heroine that became more popular in 70s. Rebellion and drugs walk the same road hand-in-hand. The other images of “Fear and Loathing” series became not less popular. Whether it Raoul Duke with the cigarette and bag full of paranoia and hallucinations is speaking from the hotel or the famous Gonzo Guilt image depicting a horny creature with rolled eyes, all these images are very widely known and recognizable.
With the time goes by Ralph Steadman is looking for new forms and ways of graphics and the idea of caricature. The answer came suddenly during his visit to the Turkey in 1980. The illustrator was making the shots with Polaroid and discovered that it can distort the images before it is set. Steadman tried this effect on the portraits of very famous figures. This series of work called Paranoids. The most wide-known works from that period of time are the vicious images of Marylyn Monroe, Woody Allen, Richard Nixon, John Lennon, etc. At the same time, the side-effect of Polaroid camera made different transformations of the rich and famous. The portrait of Marylyn is made with closed eyes and melting face features hinting on her partiality for the sedatives and insomnia medications. Richard Nixon’s portrait is the most unpleasant in the Paranoids series. Only his face went through a transformation showing a distorting face of the President giving the interview. This work depicts the idea of evanescence of power, popularity and money that fuel the idea of a Dream popularized among all society layers. The aspiration for the material goods and power can melt as the Polaroid pictures.
“In some ways ‘cartoonist’ is a derogatory term. – Steadman says. People have said it tome dozens of times you are just a cartoonist. That is the thing about drawing: when you try to say something in pictures, it gains a dimension that language cannot match. I like that.” (Maughan 9) Ralph Steadman uses illustration as the view from some other side of the reality, depicting his own point of view towards things around him. A lot of people say Ralph Steadman’s works are disturbing and lacking pleasant aesthetics. It is easy to agree as his illustrations are gruesome and sometime repellent, but it is obvious that the images are pierced by its specific aesthetics. The images have meaning whether its illustrations for the books or a separate piece of art. One can admit that the collaboration with Hunter S, Thompson yield the ripest fruits, the most recognizable images that has bound these two extraordinaire characters together and made Thompson the voice of and Steadman the eye of gonzo journalism. The time creates its own heroes and rebels, dictates its own way of separating the reality and converting it to the truth through the art. This process transforms not only the artists, but the society as a whole and every individual absorbed by the process of changes. An artist can use paints, pencils, or only an eye-liner and lipstick to draw the canvas of his/her own perspective of the world and change an individual or even a whole generation. The artwork that can alter even a tiny thought is worth millions.
Hinckle, Warren. “Hunter S. Thompson.” The Nation 280.11 (2005): 13-18. Print.
Maughan, Phillip. “Drawing the Unsayable.” New Statesman 124.5157 (1996): 7-9. Print.
Steadman, Ralph. “Extravagonzo: Ralph Steadman remembers a Turbulent Year.” New Statesman 130.4568 (2001): 35-41.
Thompson, Ben. “The Interview: Ralph Steadman, Artist.” The Independent 14.25 (1996): 2-5). Print.
Thompson, Hunter S. The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Scanlan’s Monthly, 1970. Print.
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