Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Steadman’

11 JULY, 2014

Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

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A visual “autobiography” of the legendary polymath that grants equal dignity to the grit and the glory.

Freud once observed that the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” And how blazingly awake he was — his Vitruvian Man endures as one of the most iconic images of all time, his visionary anatomical illustrations changed the course of modern medicine, and he knew how to play the long game of the creative life.

Perhaps this is why in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-forties, the celebrated British cartoonist Ralph Steadman developed a great obsession with Leonardo. He began to paint the polymath’s fanciful inventions, as well as countless drawings of Leonardo himself, and eventually even travelled to Italy to stand where Leonardo stood, seeking to envision what it was like to inhabit that endlessly imaginative mind and boundless spirit.

In 1983, more than a decade before he illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm and exactly ten years after his visual interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Steadman released I, Leonardo (public library) — a remarkable “autobiography” of Da Vinci as imagined by Steadman, written in the first person and illustrated in the cartoonist’s unmistakable style. Funny, poignant, sometimes gory, sometimes optimistic, always intensely intelligent, Steadman’s story stretches from Leonardo’s boyhood experiments to his dying words, granting equal dignity to his triumphs as a genius and his doubts and disappointments as a human being, to the grit and the glory.

Steadman writes in the introduction:

In the Middle Ages the world was still flat, the center of the universe, ruled by villainous warlords, witchcraft and alchemy, superstition and disease. Few dared ask the question “What are the elephants standing on” for fear of being soundly whipped and told to shut up and keep rowing… Not a good time to be born poor, though no worse if you were born a bastard, rich or poor.

[…]

Leonardo da Vinci was born twenty years before Michelangelo in 1452. Knowledge through experience was his maxim and his experience showed him that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the prevailing atmosphere of fine thoughts and high aspirations. Yet the purity of his painting set the divine standard of Renaissance art — and of any art for that matter. I believe he preserved intact a part of his private self which found an outlet in his more personal notes and drawings… The wealth of his activities overpowered those who revered him, so that they were virtually unable to employ him. If that were not disability enough, his most beloved disciple kept from the world his inheritance, the notebooks which contained the essence of his master’s spirit. Like a guard dog he hoarded them all his life. After his death they were dismembered and dispersed, only to be rediscovered four hundred years later in a world where Leonardo’s ideas had already come about.

Much of Steadman’s narrative is woven from Leonardo’s own musings, collected in his Thoughts on Art and Life (which is available as a free download and highly recommended). Take, for instance, this passage accompanying Steadman’s terrific drawing of Leonardo’s optic studies:

The eyes … are the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature.

The eye counsels all the arts of mankind … it is the prince of mathematics … it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting. Painting encompasses all the ten functions of the eye, that is, darkness, light, body, color, shape, location, remoteness, nearness, motion and rest.

Because of the eye the soul is content to stay in its bodily prison, for without it such imprisonment is torture. Who would believe that so small a space could confirm the image of all the universe?

All those coarse jests inside the court serve now to lash my pride. His Holiness the Pope surrounded himself with none but craven guzzlers, gross pretenders and a host of fawning dignitaries who grimaced through their days at court with no more grace than beggars I had entertained in days gone by — though they had neither choice nor wit to rise above themselves and in that they had a reason.

Oh that I had ways to surely serve their putrid masquerades and twittery to make a dragon from the very menagerie within the Vatican itself.

If I could take for its head that of a mastiff or setter, for its eyes those of a cat, for its ears those of a greyhound, with the eyebrows of a lion, the temples of an old cock and the neck of a water tortoise.

O vile monster! How much better it for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives.

Complement I, Leonardo, a masterpiece in its own right, with The Provensens’ spectacular vintage pop-up book on Leonardo’s life and legacy, then revisit Steadman’s sublime illustrations for Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland.

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25 APRIL, 2014

George Orwell’s Animal Farm Illustrated by Ralph Steadman

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“I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure.”

In 1995, more than twenty years after his irreverent illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, the beloved British cartoonist Ralph Steadman put his singular twist on a very different kind of literary beast, one of the most controversial books ever published. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American publication of George Orwell’s masterpiece, which by that point had sold millions of copies around the world in more than seventy languages, Steadman illustrated a special edition titled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (public library), featuring 100 of his unmistakable full-color and halftone illustrations.

Accompanying Steadman’s illustrations is Orwell’s proposed but unpublished preface to the original edition, titled “The Freedom of the Press” — a critique of how the media’s fear of public opinion ends up drowning out the central responsibility of journalism. Though aimed at European publishers’ self-censorship regarding Animal Farm at the time, Orwell’s words ring with astounding prescience and timeliness in our present era of people-pleasing “content” that passes for journalism:

The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.

Portrait of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman

Alas, this exquisite edition is no longer in print, but I was able to track down a surviving copy and offer a taste of Steadman’s genius for our shared delight.

Also included is Orwell’s preface to the 1947 Ukrainian edition, equally timely today for obvious geopolitical reasons. In it, he writes:

I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.

And here I must pause to describe my attitude to the Soviet régime.

I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.

But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was…

I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.

Orwell concludes with a note on his often misconstrued intent with the book’s ultimate message:

I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure. But I should like to emphasize two points: first, that although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they are dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story. The second point has been missed by most critics, possibly because I did not emphasize it sufficiently. A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.

Steadman’s Animal Farm: A Fairy Story is spectacular in its entirety, should you be so fortunate to snag a used copy. Complement it with his illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland and his inkblot dog drawings, then be sure to take a closer look at Orwell’s “The Freedom of the Press.”

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10 JANUARY, 2014

Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman: A 1973 Gem

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Down the rabbit hole of creative magic, one truly mad hatter at a time.

In the century and a half since Lewis Carroll met little Alice Liddell and imagined around her his Alice in Wonderland, the beloved tale has inspired a wealth of stunning artwork, ranging from John Tenniel’s original illustrations to Leonard Weisgard’s mid-century masterpieces to Salvador Dalí’s little-known heliogravures to Robert Sabuda’s pop-up magic. But among the most singular and weirdly wonderful is the 1973 gem Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman (public library; Abe Books). Barely in his mid-thirties at the time, the beloved British cartoonist — best-known today for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson and his unmistakable inkblot dog drawings — brings to Carroll’s classic the perfect kind of semi-sensical visual genius, blending the irreverent with the sublime.

(Because, you know, it’s not a tea party until somebody flips the bird.)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman is an absolute treat in its entirety. Wash it down with The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.

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