SPLAT!: The Art of Ralph Steadman

Steadman may have gone Gonzo with Hunter S. Thompson, but that’s only part of his 60-year quest to stick it to The Man. 

Ralph Steadman still bets on a horse to win the Kentucky Derby every year.

It’s a perennial ritual he’s kept since the first time he attended the seersuckered and fancy-hatted soiree with Hunter S. Thompson in 1970, who was on assignment with a little-known publication named Scanlan’s Monthly. Steadman was tasked with illustrating the piece, and it would be the first of many booze-drenched sojourns the pair would make around the world. Churchill Downs was also the precise birthplace of “Gonzo Journalism.”

The first thing Thompson noticed was Steadman’s beard, a beatnik goatee beneath his mouth. “What’s that growth on your chin?” Steadman recalls Thompson asking. “They said you’d be weird — but not that weird.”

A curious observation from the man who brought us Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

In fact, Steadman illustrated that feature as well, along with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and several other Thompson classics, many of which first appeared in Rolling Stone.    

“It would be very difficult to imagine any other imagery accompanying those pieces,” says Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine. “Those images have a lot to do with the way those pieces were received. I think they just work hand in hand.”

Cartoon of Hunter S. Thompson from the 2008 documentary Gonzo: The life and work of Hunter S. Thompson. Courtesy of Ralph Steadman

But beyond his groundbreaking collaborations with Thompson, Steadman’s illustrations have been found in countless publications, including Private Eye, The New Yorker, Esquire, and New Statesman. He’s written and illustrated 35 books and provided drawings alone for many others, including reprints of Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland. Through the early aughts, he made drawings for “Psychogeography,” British author Will Self’s column in The Independent, and in 2012 his life was the subject of For No Good Reason, a documentary featuring Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp.

As part of the “Satire Boom” in the early 1960s, Steadman is a key figure in British graphic art. He’s a painter, a musician, a set designer for TV and theater, and he’s made illustrations for wine and beer labels — most notably those found on bottles from Flying Dog Brewery. As an artist, he dabbles in commercial work — a limited-edition Breaking Bad box set, for instance — but never faltered in his counterculture leaning. Behind all this, his bones are filled with an irreverent and vicious disdain for the world’s injustices, and it’s something that’s moved him to cast maniacal aspersions toward authority throughout his entire career.

His art still cuts deep. And it’s not just because of the brilliant, Rorschach-test splatters and wickedly precise linework. Steadman remains one of the greatest living illustrators because the world is just as messed up as it was when he started drawing it in the first place, and his aesthetic assault on crooked politicians and vapid social hierarchies rings as true today as it did in the ’70s. Steadman’s work holds a mirror to the murky, violent bits of our society, and we can’t stop looking.

Photo by Rikard Österlund

He still wears an amulet Thompson gave him in 1995 to ward off evil spirits. It’s an Easter Island-looking head that dangles from a string around his neck, along with a silver-and-turquoise figure he got in Santa Fe in 1975 and a sage-and-black piece of a mountain in Wales, where he spent his childhood.

SF Weekly caught up with Steadman over a series of Skype conversations ahead of his latest exhibition, Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective, which opened on Tuesday at the Haight Street Art Center and runs through Jan. 20, 2019. After its debut at the London Cartoon Museum in 2013, the show made its way stateside to the Society of Illustrators in New York and, this past summer, the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C.

Steadman, 82, is spry and mirthful throughout the interviews, which he conducts from his home studio in Kent, England. As the conversation oscillates between aphoristic and cheeky, you can feel his 60-year career oozing out of him. It’s quite apparent that he takes great joy in messing with a scruffy American reporter (whom he describes as looking like a cross between Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers), but his playful jabs never mask his kind and gentle spirit.

His warmth stands in direct contradiction to his ingenious, deafening illustrations, which often produce a visceral and unsettling experience. And that’s the point. It’s this mainline brand of satire that gives his grotesque send-ups of President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew, and the drunken, monied gawkers at a Kentucky horse race 50 years ago such lasting and contemporary appeal.

“Nixon was a good subject for drawing. He was an unpleasant man, with a stupid nose for cartoonists to draw. He had a ski-slope,” Steadman says. “I really didn’t like him, but at least he was a proper politician, even though he was a crook. Trump isn’t a politician at all. He’s just a fat-ass twit.”

He’s been able to deftly weaponize these sentiments — and many others like it —  by way of an illustrative style that’s purely his own. In one drawing, he depicts a snarling Nixon leaning on a podium as he takes a violent shit onto a smaller podium behind him — but his ass is a caricature of Agnew. In the same spirit, Steadman draws Trump as a fat, piglike baby defecating blood through a pair of American flag undies. Both are currently on display at the Haight Street Art Center.

“I found that I liked the whole idea of very careful line drawing, or circles, becoming a juxtaposed part of a drawing with spatters,” Steadman says, adding that it produces “something that captivates the eye and makes you think because there’s that tension in it. There’s a sort of splattiness and scrubble everywhere, and then very carefully done pictures in it. … I’m trying to catch the attention of people somehow, to look at it a bit closer.”

Steadman has spent much of his career speaking truth to power far beyond the scope of politicians, and the roots of his decades-long quest to stick it to The Man can be traced back to an evil educator from his early schooling in Abergele, Wales.   

“I hated authority, because authority is the mask of violence,” he says. “My headmaster was a vicious brute of a bastard at the grammar school I went to, and he loved to cane us.”

As proof, he presents a portrait in the Skype window of a spindly, wretched man wearing a mortarboard and clutching a thin, menacing stick.

The desire to escape the grips of a stifling educational environment may have spawned Steadman’s obsession with flight and flying. He enjoyed building model airplanes, and in 1952, he left school at the age of 16 to apprentice as an aircraft engineer at the De Havilland Aircraft Company, located in the nearby town of Broughton.

He despised factory life and only lasted a few months. However, he picked up valuable draughtsman skills, and the technical, geometric lines he learned to craft are as pervasive throughout his work as his signature splats, drips, and splotches.

Photo by Rikard Österlund

Steadman published his first “pocket cartoon” in the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1956, and by 1959, he was working as a staff cartoonist for that paper, along with the Aberdeen Press and Journal. But he didn’t feel at ease.

“It was during that period that I suddenly thought, ‘I don’t like these drawings because they’re too quaint, too silly. I’d like to bring some activity into them, something with more emotion,’ ” he says.

He began attending night school at East Ham Technical College and went deeper into a proper arts education under the teachings of Leslie Richardson, a brilliant instructor whom Steadman cites as one of his lifelong friends and major influences. Interestingly enough, Richardson also taught well-known illustrator Gerald Scarfe, whose illustrations for Pink Floyd’s The Wall appear as spiritual siblings to Steadman’s frenetic, wild linework.

Beer, Flying Dog, Raging Bitch

Scarfe and Steadman spent a great deal of time together during this period, going to art shows and sketching figures from the natural history museum all while learning the brass tacks of formal drawing.

“It’s not about learning a style, it’s about learning to draw and observing what you’re doing,” Steadman says. “And all those things had a very serious effect on me because it became a responsibility to learn how to do something properly.”

But as he built this disciplined approach, he loosened his stroke and learned to embrace the blots, drips, and overall “clumsiness” provided by an oversaturated pen nib cast wildly across a sheet of paper.

“People say you make a mistake if you don’t pencil it first, but that’s the whole point. If you pencil first it’s rather boring,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is an opportunity to do something else. That’s why I sometimes like just splatting, and letting that become part of the work,” he adds.  “A splat is a mark of intent, isn’t it? And every one is different. You never get the same one twice.”

He became a regular contributor to Punch, a weekly British satire magazine, but still felt a certain level of confinement until he finally landed a cartoon in the newly founded Private Eye, a publication that gave him a much longer leash in terms of letting his biting political and social commentary emerge in his artwork. This is perhaps best exemplified in some of his earliest work for the publication — a series depicting the seediness of London street life dubbed “New London Cries.”

Steadman’s career picked up speed throughout the 1960s, and in 1969, he published Still Life with Raspberry, his first book of cartoons. But at this point, his life was about to get thrown into a whiskey-soaked hyperdrive. While visiting New York in 1970, J.C. Suarez, the art director for Scanlan’s Monthly, approached him. The magazine was gearing up to run an exposé of the Kentucky Derby, and had dispatched Thompson to write it up. Thompson had just made a name for himself with 1967’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, in which he lived with the gang for a year, chronicling the inner workings of their underworld.

The cartoonist who was supposed to accompany Thompson had fallen through, and Steadman recalls Suarez asking him, “How’d you like to go to Kentucky and meet an ex-Hell’s Angel who just shaved his head?’” Steadman took the bait, and after a days-long bender, produced a set of explosive illustrations, some of which he created with lipstick and an eyeliner pencil because he left his art supplies in a cab in New York. The trip marked the beginning of one of journalism’s most recognizable partnerships.

“I was the innocent abroad, and I remained the innocent abroad for all those years,” Steadman says.

But this account pretty much falls apart upon closer examination of the pair’s second assignment for Scanlan’s, in which Thompson and Steadman were sent to cover the America’s Cup in 1970. Surprisingly, it was the only time Steadman took drugs with Thompson — a pill containing psilocybin — and only under the impression that it might assuage his seasickness.

Later, Steadman recalls holding a can of spray paint with Thompson in a rowboat, preparing to write “Fuck the Pope” on the side of a multimillion-dollar boat. They got spooked when a dockworker spotted them and fled the scene before any vandalism occurred, but not before Thompson fired a flare gun indiscriminately into the bay to cause a diversion. Luckily, the fires that broke out on the decks of some of the ambushed ships were small and caused no permanent damage.

Innocent, indeed. Thompson would later tell a journalist colleague that he considered Steadman “far more crazy” than he was. “He’s out there,” Thompson would say, somewhat in wonder. “He’s a sick man.”

Good Time Crucifix. Courtesy of Ralph Steadman

Although Steadman didn’t care for the psilocybin, he says the experience helped him develop illustrations for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Ironically, that was one excursion on which Steadman did not accompany Thompson. He created the illustrations from a manuscript and a deep understanding of the melée attached to anything within Thompson’s orbit.

But there were plenty of other journeys with Thompson, including the 1972 presidential campaign, the Watergate hearings, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, and the Honolulu marathon.   Steadman was one of the chosen few that seemed to be able to hang with Thompson, and despite their differences, he served as something of a muse to Gonzo Journalism’s founding father.

“I got used to the whole idea of him having his breakfast delivered to his room, and it was six Bloody Marys on a tray,” Steadman says.

He recalls that Thompson would usually not want to do anything except drink, take drugs, stay up all night, and then sleep until 3 p.m. the next day. In fact, Steadman would typically complete the drawings for an assignment well before Thompson had even written the first line.

“It was once I started doing the drawings, he felt the need to do something then,” Steadman says. “It wasn’t as though I’d done something passive, I’d done something angry … and I think it did inspire him to do something. I think he thought, ‘Who the fuck is this bloody English bloke coming over here and telling me what to do?’ ”

Steadman’s daughter, Sadie Williams, elaborates on the symbiosis between her father and Thompson. She handles Steadman’s art-related affairs and catalogue and acts more or less as his manager these days.

Portrait of Donald Trump. Courtesy of Ralph Steadman

“People don’t realize that it was very much a 50-50 collaboration,” she says. “It wasn’t ‘artist-draws-to-writer’s-specifications.’ He was just as often the catalyst for a thought. But the way that Hunter had this knack for just putting things would be the thing that sparked maybe an entire drawing in Dad’s head. It was Dad’s job to capture these moments. … It was back and forth. There was always a conversation going on.”

Glimpses of these conversations are on display at the retrospective in the form of faxed correspondences between Steadman and Thompson, an element unique to its San Francisco showing.

“Sometimes it’s quite brutal — they weren’t very nice to each other at all,” Williams says. “But then they’d sign it ‘Love, Hunter’ or ‘Love, Ralph.’ There was always this sort of contradiction. People say they were like chalk and cheese, and I think you can see that in their conversations. It was like spikes. If it was a heart machine, it would [show] erratic heart movements, not a nice, steady pace of friendship.”

Regardless, a deep kinship existed between Steadman and Thompson, and they stayed close friends until Thompson’s suicide in February 2005. Perhaps they got along because they shared a problem with authority — although, according to Steadman, Thompson’s was a bit more nuanced.

“I think that Hunter was very patriotic — maybe against his will, but he was,” Steadman says. “He loved the American flag and he joined the [Air Force]. He was like a good schoolboy. But all the other stuff, the ‘fear and loathing,’ was that suddenly, something was messing with his country. This Nixon guy was messing with his country, and he didn’t like it. And that became part of, like, a crusade. And I just happened to come along at the same time. The kind of thing he needed was this kind of drawing, which was spiky and to the point.”

Rolling Stone also believed Steadman’s art was the precise complement to Thompson’s words, and served as a fertile valley for their partnership to grow for many years, until he stopped producing work for the magazine in the mid-’90s. Editor Jason Fine, who’s worked for Rolling Stone for the past two decades, further reflects on the union of two firebrands.

“For me personally, and for a lot of people, that coverage — first Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but then the political coverage that followed it — was the perfect way of encapsulating the sort of terror, fear, absurdity, [and] even humor of those times,” Fine tells SF Weekly. “Pairing Hunter with Ralph was a pretty explosive combination of guys who were able to give a pretty radically different perspective than you read in most newspapers certainly, or in the press overall.”

He says that after a long hiatus, Steadman is once again working on illustrations for some upcoming political coverage in the magazine. It makes sense that the magazine’s long-lost son of satiric illustration is making a return in today’s political climate. Perhaps our country needs him now more than ever. Fine seems to think that way.

“Some of his work contains these exaggerations and this convoluted take on reality that really drives the point home. One thing I’m thinking about right now is how much we’ve normalized such awful things and these kinds of behaviors that should be so unacceptable,” he says.

“When you look back there are certainly a lot of parallels between the ’72 election and probably the election we are moving towards in 2020 — which almost looks quaint by comparison,” Fine continues. “Ralph has this ability to take us out of the normalization of these things you see on the news, and on your feed. You become dull to them, and Ralph has a way of showing how absurd and terrifying this moment is.”

This echoes Steadman’s approach to dirty politicians.

“You’ve got to make them look ridiculous,” he says. “You’ve got to make people see them making mistakes, doing the wrong thing, not acting wisely, not acting compassionately, but just being a bully and a mean son of a bitch.”

Anita O’Brien is the director and curator of the Cartoon Museum in London, and curated the original retrospective in 2013 along with its subsequent iterations, including the San Francisco exhibition. She speaks to the inborn dynamic tension of Steadman’s work following his tenure at East Ham Technical College.

“He was experimenting with all these different styles. He had this loose style, but also this more controlled style, and a combination of both because he had his background in technical drawing when he worked for the aviation company,” she says. “He combined that precision with this great expansiveness and spontaneity that people associate with him. But his spontaneity is built on all those years of drawing. … He always says, ‘There’s no such thing as a mistake — it’s an opportunity.’ But you need the skill to see the opportunity in the mistake.”

She says Steadman helped bridge the gap that existed between 18th-century British pictorial satirists like William Hogarth and James Gillray and cartoonists and illustrators associated with the mid-20th century Satire Boom in England. The academy has since taken note: Among his long list of bona fides, Steadman received the American Institute of Graphic Arts Illustrator of the Year award in 1979 and the BBC Design Award in 1987, plus an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Kent in 1995.

“He’s part of cartooning history, but really graphic satire history, because he’s very influenced by people like George Grosz and Otto Dix working in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, and had that real sharpness of social observation,” O’Brien says.

She explains that from the mid-19th century through the 1950s, illustrations in magazines like Punch were satirical but a bit polite, lacking a certain edge and the grotesqueness associated with the golden age of British caricature.

“But Steadman and Scarfe in the early ’60s, in Private Eye, really re-established this sharper, satirical, more biting commentary on society and on politics,” she says. “He’s really a major link between the tradition of British cartooning and graphic satire.”

Everything Steadman touches becomes his own. His Paranoids (1986) — Polaroids whose emulsion he manipulates as they develop — magically express the same splatter-and-line work of his drawings. (There’s a particularly spooky, melty shot of an ambushed David Hockney.) In Still Life with Bottle (1994), he sets his sights on the world of single-malt whisky and illuminates the peaty liquid’s universe in a way that only he can.

In fact — along with his typical torrent of books, paintings, and illustrations — Steadman did quite a bit of work in both the wine and beer industries throughout the 1990s. He travelled the world documenting vineyards for the U.K. company Oddbins Wine Merchants, and while he’s also worked with a handful of domestic winemakers, he’s most recognized in the U.S. for producing the labels for Flying Dog Brewery.

“I love Ralph, he’s beloved. He’s the finest human being I’ve ever met,” says Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso. “Possibly the one true artist in the world today.”

Asked to elaborate, Caruso points to Steadman’s range as an artist.

“It goes from him exposing and doing art about crooked politicians and greedy, unethical bankers, the horrors and evil of war, and the social tragedy of poverty,” he says. “He despises bullies. But he also has this broad range of fun and whimsical art — he does those ‘critters for gonzo-vation.’ ”

Caruso is referring to a trilogy of books Steadman created with British writer-filmmaker Ceri Levy that were meant to raise awareness of extinct and endangered animals. In fact the series — Extinct Boids (2012), Nextinction (2015), and Critical Critters (2017) — really gets at the essence of Steadman’s work: anger, humor, action, and compassion all thrown together as drips, spats, pigments, and wild lines across the paper.

Some of the drawings, such as “American Wild Ass” from Critical Critters, show off a new approach Steadman has developed, which he calls his “dirty water technique.” It consists of splashing the dirty water from his paint jar onto a sheet of watercolor paper, letting it dry, then divining out a creature from the depths of the controlled accident.

Holding a terrifying painting of an evil dentist conjured from one of these spills, Steadman elaborates on the process. “Nature made it happen this way. All these textures are nature at work,” he says. “I look upon it as a reflection of the natural state of things, and it all happened by chance.” 

O’Brien is particularly taken by the dirty water technique.

“He just has the sensibility of looking at the world as an artist, and anything can become material,” she says. “And he’s doing this in his 80s. It’s astonishing, and I think it’s so inspiring. He’s still drawing political figures, he’s drawing Trump. … He’s commentating. He’s still responding to the world in his own inimitable way, and he just has that freshness. Sometimes people get to a certain age and they just kind of repeat themselves. They’re known for a certain thing and they just coast along. But I feel Ralph’s not like that.”

 

A few years back, Steadman produced a masterful rendition of Walter White for a limited-edition box set of Breaking Bad. This year, he did the art for a Travis Scott and Quavo’s album, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho. He’s also created poster art for the upcoming Broadway comedy Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, starring Nathan Lane. And now, nearly 50 years after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published, he’s gearing up to produce a new batch of images for Rolling Stone.

Why does he keep at it? Because in many ways, not much has changed since the 1970s.

“People haven’t stopped being unpleasant to each other,” Steadman says. “Why are there still wars? There are still millions of people suffering in hideous camps, all trying to escape to somewhere else. And in a way, they’re on a road to hell it seems. Things are not settled in any way.”

He’s right. It feels like there’s more unrest in the modern world than ever. And that’s precisely why Steadman’s work still holds water.

“I think so many things that he has done still make us think about our relationship to the world, how we live, and our responsibility to think about our actions,” O’Brien says. “The great graphic artists ask questions and make us reflect on our own existence and what we do. Not only about whether or not people in positions of power are doing the right thing, but are we doing the right thing ourselves.”

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that Steadman was “the most gifted and effective existentialist artist” of his time, and the retrospective at the Haight Street Art Center sounds off a stalwart, maniacal, and powerful voice that’s been howling against all that’s rotten in the world for decades.

Asked why he chose to start drawing cartoons in the first place, Steadman replies, “I set out to change the world, and I succeeded. It’s worse now than it was when I started.”

But the world is oddly brighter from his twisted, deafeningly beautiful approach to it. It’s clear he’s done exactly what he set out to do with his life. The question is, have we?

 

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