A week for/against the cartoonists

Last week an old friend came to visit me and it was a good opportunity to check out this amazing exhibition, a major retrospective exhibition of Ralph Steadman’s work, at the Bentlif Gallery – Maidstone Museum. I’d been anticipating the arrival of the exhibition for some time, as it’s not very often you get a world renowned graphic artist showing in your local gallery. I have to hand it to them (the gallery) as they’ve done well in recent years. They hosted the Henri Mattisse’s paper cut outs during winter 2013/14 which later exhibited at the Tate Modern that summer, if you were in London you would of seen the posters everywhere.

Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery

My tutor at college first introduced me to Ralph Steadman’s illustrations, with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, through one of the introduction units on the graphic design course. We were tasked with replicating his style and, with our best efforts, illustrate Napoleon, the antagonist pig-leader from the children’s book. It took a few attempts to embrace the archaic effects of overloading the pen – creating ink blotches, spraying it across the page to then find myself dunking a fat paintbrush into a pot of rich-black Indian ink and slapping it onto the paper. So much mess but I really enjoyed it.

Steadman lives locally, moving to his Kent studio just over 25 years ago, so it is good to see the town celebrating it’s creative heritage. This exhibition was originally put together by the Cartoon Museum back in 2013, celebrating Steadman’s long and illustrious career as one of the most important graphic artists of the last fifty years, called ‘Steadman @77’.

On display are many of his early cartoons published by Private Eye and Punch, including his earliest published cartoon from the July 1956 Manchester Evening Chronicle, as well as his later pieces for The New York Times and Observer. Along with many of Steadman’s famous ‘gonzo’ works from his collaboration with the writer Hunter S. Thompson, including his iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas illustrations.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Alongside these are his seminal children’s books illustrations like The Big I am, Animal Farm and Through the Looking-Glass, demonstrating his range. Steadman’s more recent atmospheric wine drawings produced for Oddbins and his sketches of ‘boids’ can also be seen.

‘Ralph is an icon, his topical, political renderings iconic, his mad jargon a paragon of artistic brilliance. And through the illustrated musings of his life and times, Ralph’s bird will perpetually soar in the minds of those that follow, carrying the torch he once collected from all the dissidents that spewed their creative venom before him. Here is a man and artist of superior calibre.’ – Johnny Depp

Sadly my visit was shadowed by the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris the day earlier. During my visit I was inundated with notifications on my phone from BBC Breaking News alerting me of every detail of the manhunt that ensued, it just hit me how relevant this experience was to current events. Here I was celebrating the works of a cartoonist, yet only 200 miles away across the English Channel they were massacred. I think it is important to remember that these illustrations are a form of communication, as powerful as spoken or written word. I’m not sure if Charlie Hebdo were right to print offensive imagery but where could the line be drawn? What level of offence is acceptable? Are Steadman’s satirical caricatures offensive? To those he depicts I suppose so, but to others it’s a visual representation of someone’s opinion and it’s entertaining! What would I be looking at on these walls if Steadman couldn’t cause a little offence?

Anyway, check out this exhibition if you’re in the area, it’s great. Also there is a competition to win a signed copy of any piece of your choice, sounds good. I went for one from Through the Looking Glass, as it is visually stunning, but my favourite piece from the collection has to be the memorial piece to Hunter S. Thompson signed with messages of love from his close family and friends.

Through the Looking Glass

Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective
Saturday 6 December 2014 – Saturday 28 February 2015
Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery