Going ‘Gonzo’ Over Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective
Beloved British graphic artist, Ralph Steadman, sat quietly enough on stage at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center until he decided to take off his shoe and share his new Picasso socks with the audience. A roar of laughter, including the moderator, set the tone for the discussion with Steadman who was in D.C. to celebrate his retrospective — 50 years and a collection of over 100 original artworks. With humor and candor at the center of his work, Steadman’s expansive compilation includes an assortment of sketches done in the 50’s, books of illustrations and his current works.
What he’s most widely recognized for is his long collaboration with ‘Gonzo’ journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. This working friendship gave birth to some of Steadman’s most famous work which included illustrations for Hunter’s novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Steadman’s cult status influenced notable graphic and comic artists, as well as, garnered him many awards. The exhibition explores his earliest published cartoons from 1956 to illustrations for George Orwell’s allegorical novella, Animal Farm and magazines like Punch and Rolling Stones. Jack Rasmussen, the museum curator, expanded on Steadman’s remarkable work of a lifetime.
Who or what was the catalyst to host the “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective” at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center?
The exhibition initially traveled to New York to show at the Society of Illustrators in 2016, and since it was going to be in the USA, Steadman’s team decided to try and put together a touring show, which is now booked into venues in San Francisco, LA, Kentucky, and Oregon until 2021. The proposal was sent to me, and I showed it to Kevin Runyon, our hip young preparator from Baltimore, who advised me to TAKE IT!
Steadman has been a long-time collaborator with writer Hunter S. Thompson. Which illustration best depicts their relationship and why?
Leaving Kinshasa from the Rumble in the Jungle (a newly discovered piece now in the show) reflects that total surrender to the experience and the story and what Steadman and Thompson were both willing to do to find that in their own different ways. Because Rumble in the Jungle was never published (Hunter never wrote the story), it reflects that chaos and refusal to submit “to the man” that Steadman seemed to embrace.
The exhibit features over 100 originals of Steadman’s works. What was the process for selecting these particular images?
Anita O’Brien and Chris Miles at the Cartoon Museum in London curated the original show in 2013, wanting to showcase not just Steadman’s most famous collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson but the full breadth of his work. It was also essential to demonstrate his incredible ability to draw from those early days when he used to sit in the V & A and the Natural History Museum, and in London pubs, sketching what he saw.
Steadman was quoted to say, “God invented mankind because he loves silly stories.” Clearly, humor is at the core of Steadman’s graphic artwork. How do you think his art has affected the worldview on past politics, and what do you think he’d say about our current state of U.S. affairs?
Steadman took the traditions of cartooning and satire which have long existed in the UK in the work of Gilray and Hogarth through Searle and Scarfe and pushed it further to the edge. ‘Gonzo Journalism’ is a reaction to establish control over the media and seeks to make the voice of truth. Ralph was never afraid to put the uncomfortable truths out there – you can see that in some of his more political works. “How do you Crucify a Child in Vietnam without any Arms” is an incredibly shocking image to look at, but demands account is taken.
Steadman designed the logo for Flying Dog Beer headquartered in Aspen, Colorado with a brewing facility nearby in Frederick, Maryland. How did this alliance come about?
Hunter originally asked Ralph to produce a label for the beer brand when it was a small brewery run by George Stranahan near his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. The original fax (seen below) is still in the studio. The first label was for a beer called Road Dog Ale, and while there is still a sketch of it in the studio (illustration below), the original artwork is missing.
The show also includes imagery of extinct birds ‘boids,’ created for Steadman’s Extinct Boids artwork which as inspired by the TV show, Breaking Bad (feature image) and his most recently released book, Critical Critters.
RALPH STEADMAN: A RETROSPECTIVE runs through August 12, 2018 at the American University at the Katzen Center. For further information on the exhibit visit American University at the Katzen Center
Cecilia Mencia is founder of DCTrending.com and an independent, DC-based journalist.