Originally curated by Anita O’Brien and Chris Miles at London’s Cartoon Museum, an exhibition of the work of Ralph Steadman is on tour in the US, currently on display at the American University in Washington DC until August.
Hugely influential, Steadman, now 81, is famous for his long collaboration with the writer Hunter S. Thompson, most notably providing the illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1971, and helping to create what has since become known as ‘Gonzo’ journalism. The award-winning artist’s own illustrated books have been translated into several languages and his work has been exhibited around the world.
The Ralph Steadman Retrospective, which has been touring the UK for some time, explores the full range of the artist’s work, including his earliest published cartoon from 1956, and material from Private Eye, Punch, the Observer, the New Statesman and Rolling Stone.
There are atmospheric wine drawings produced for Oddbins catalogues and his iconic packaging for Flying Dog Brewery, humanitarian pictures, savage political cartoons and some of his charming and funny illustrations for children’s books such as Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm and Treasure Island. Plus, art from the inventive books he’s authored, such as No Room to Swing a Cat, That’s My Dad, I Leonardo and The Big I Am.
The show also includes examples of the extinct birds and imaginary ‘boids’ which he created for Extinct Boids, art work inspired by the television-cable series Breaking Bad and images from Steadman’s most recent book, Critical Critters.
The exhibition also includes rare sketches and art, such as rejected work commissioned by Rolling Stone, inspired by his disastrous trip to Zaire with Thompson in 1974, to cover the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
Talking to Newsweek and Vanity Fair recently, Steadman reveals Thompson sold their tickets to the fight almost immediately upon arriving in Kinshasa and told Steadman, “I didn’t come all this way to watch a couple of guys beat the hell out of each other.”
(That’s the polite account of events – Steadman made no bones about what Thompson said when he wrote about him for The Guardian back in 2005).
“The moment the fight was over, everyone wanted to get out,” Steadman told Newsweek. “And there was a hell of a scramble to get on the last planes out of Kinshasa. Nobody wanted to be there anymore. I’ve got a picture of them escaping. The original sketchbooks are in the exhibition, in a display case.”
The Retrospective offers phenomenal insights into the genius of one of the world’s most acclaimed artists, taking the viewer on a journey through Steadman’s prolific career of more than sixty years, from the sketches he created as a student in the 1950’s to present day pictures.
“I try not to have a preconceived notion and just start working in the hope that something will emerge unexpectedly,” Ralph recently told It’s Nice That on his process for creating album covers. “Furnaces [by Ed Harcourt] was very like that. I listened to the music and the messages in it and I knew that Ed wanted something fiery; a fiery planet but, really, I just let the paint do the work.”
Much of Steadman’s current work is more abstract than in the past, created by pouring the wash water from his paintbrushes on to paper on the floor and watching what emerges. He swims every day, at least when the pool isn’t full of his grandchildren, but retirement doesn’t seem like an option.
“You’ve got to do something,” he told Vanity Fair.
The exhibition will amaze and inspire both the uninitiated and his most die-hard fans.
As Thompson advised in the Steadman illustrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “buy a ticket, take the ride.”
• The exhibition is accompanied by a 160-page, full-colour catalogue, available here on the Ralph Steadman web site, that includes forewords by actor Johnny Depp, journalist and critic Carlo McCormick and artist Anita Kunz
• Ralph Steadman’s official web site is at www.ralphsteadman.com
• The Ralph Steadman Retrospective exhibition will be on view until 12th August 2018, Tuesday – Sunday, 11.00am – 4.00 pm at the American University Museum, Washington DC (more details online here) before traveling to: University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington, Kentucky (16th February – 12th 2019); and Jordan Schnitzer Museum, Eugene, Oregon (28th September 20th January 2020)
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All images featured copyright Ralph Steadman