RALPH STEADMAN: A LIFE IN INK | BOOK REVIEW
Ralph Steadman (Chronicle Chroma)
All summer, amid lockdown and dread, I’ve been collecting some of the work of living legend Ralph Steadman. Most know him for his blistering artwork in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the infamous drug-fuelled Gonzo masterwork of Hunter S. Thompson. Others might have seen his work on a film poster, or the offlicence Oddbins. Perhaps you’ve seen his portraits of characters from Breaking Bad, or his take on endangered animals in Critical Critters? More recently his work has even graced our very soles, with a collection with Vans, a carnival of animals, vivid in its execution. Last month, I was able to interview Ralph ahead of his latest book, A Life In Ink.
A Life In Ink could easily be defined as a coffee-table book, but is much more: a compelling collection of Ralph’s oeuvre, spanning 60 years in ink adventures. You really see the progress of his development: early work has a rugged, drab style, with many nods to André François, whilst later work has the impact of a guillotine. Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon comes easily to mind in these wild, expressionistic swipes – the grotesque was never so joyful. You get a feel for his left-leaning political views, as Brexit, Bush and the brutality of contemporary living are all exposed under his microscope. Even a few jabs at architects, and the concrete jungles they often formulate, lie within.
There are many highlights, like a giant stamp of Elizabeth II teary-eyed, a depiction I’ve never quite seen before. The classic take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice still has great appeal, perhaps the finest visual version of the story in print. At Steadman’s Disneyland, those in the costumes are of questionable character. Police brutality in America has never gone away.
I write this review as the last votes are being counted in the American election. A drawing from Ralph’s archive sees a couple visiting in Dallas on the 20th anniversary of the JFK assignation. The lady, shaded with a vulgar slobbishness, says “four more years will suit us just fine, I guess,” as her partner wears a Nixon hat. This feeling is reflected today – an ongoing mood often felt in both the States and across the globe.
As the book concludes, we are faced with two memorable images: Viral Menace, which some buyers get a print of, a statement on 2020, splattered with mouldy water (one of Ralph’s USPs); and the recycling of his Between The Eyes portrait, now featuring a mask and rendered a telling image of the pandemic. A grand thank you list features the likes of Freud, Da Vinci and – of course – Hunter S. Thompson.
A Life In Ink’s rousing final words are a call for reason at this time. Only we don’t want these to be your final words, Ralph (as an interview subject, he was full of beans) and his simple statement of “Listen to the blackbird” might be the Zen mantra we require.
words JAMES ELLIS image credits RALPH STEADMAN ART COLLECTION
Price: £45. Info: here