To say that Ralph Steadman has a distinctive style is a bit of an understatement. Primarily an illustrator and cartoonist, Steadman started his career in the 1960s and soon established himself as a counter-culture icon. I don’t really know how to describe his work and do justice to it other than to say it’s as if you took a completely normal, standard drawing then smeared it, soiled it, and then blew it up with dynamite and pieced it back together again with blood and spit. His art is aggressive, dirty, sloppy, and subversive. His art is disturbing. It is grotesque. And it is completely captivating. You may not like Ralph Steadman’s art, but it cannot be ignored.
One particular collaborator Steadman is famous for working with is Hunter S. Thompson. The two worked together on several projects together including a trip to the Kentucky Derby, a marathon in Honolulu, and both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail with Steadman illustrating Thompson’s articles. Personally, I cannot read Hunter S. Thompson’s work without immediately thinking of Ralph Steadman’s art. Steadman’s art not only perfectly renders Thomson’s words and style, but also captures the inner workings of Thompson’s drug-addled mind. Well, at least it seems that way to me.
I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was in High School knowing nothing about the book other than the completely insane cover by Steadman. It depicted a line drawing of two men, heavily caricatured and distorted, driving a convertible toward the viewer with bats hovering overhead. I bought the book immediately based on that cover alone. So, yes I did judge that book by its cover, and as it turns out my judgment was pretty spot-on.
I won’t go into detail on what the book is about, other than to say it is a vivid fever dream of drugs, sex, rock and roll, and depravity; with some satire and commentary on the American Dream thrown in for good measure. It is a classic that many may find offensive, which makes it more of a classic.
Anyway, that brings me to the thing I wanted to talk about today: the illustration Lounge Lizards by Ralph Steadman.
In a book filled with strange, disturbing images Lounge Lizards has always stood out to me as something special. And by special I mean of course that it is an image indelibly burnt into my mind and has haunted me since I was roughly 14 years old. It comes near the beginning of the story when Raul Duke, our protagonist and thinly veiled caricature of Hunter Thompson, and his “lawyer” attempt to check in to his Las Vegas hotel while tripping on acid. The room they find out is not quite ready:
The woman’s face was changing: swelling, pulsing … horrible green jowls, and fangs jutting out, the face of a Moray Eel! Deadly poison! I lunged backward into my attorney, who gripped my arm as he reached out to take the note. “I’ll handle this,” he said to the Moray woman. “This man has a bad heart, but I have plenty of medicine. My name is Doctor Gonzo. Prepare our suite at once. We’ll be in the bar.”
Later in the bar, the two tripping men attempt to look casual and get a bearing on their situation. Duke as it turns out is not handling the experience all that well. He watches as all the patrons in the crowded bar morph and change into terrifying monsters and begin to attack and maul one another:
“…We’re right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! And somebody’s giving booze to these goddamn things! It won’t be long before they tear us to shreds. Jesus, look at the floor! Have you ever seen so much blood? How many have they killed already?” I pointed across the room to a group that seemed to be staring at us. “Holy shit, look at that bunch over there! They’ve spotted us!”
It is a horrible vision, vivid and gross, but played for laughs in a macabre and disturbing way. Steadman captures this perfectly. In this picture, Steadman shows exactly why he and Thompson worked so well together. Thompson’s story is harrowing and frightening, but also comedic. And Steadman illustrates this perfectly. The creatures are menacing, lizard, and birdlike with vicious gnashing teeth and predatory expressions. The solid black floor has subtle ripples giving it the impression of a liquid – a pool of blood in which they wallow and bathe. At the same time, that menace is offset by the fact that they are all wearing leisure suits and sipping cocktails at a hotel bar. The whole thing is absurd. It is surreal and fantastic but ultimately we know it is unreal, a nightmare brought on by psychedelic drugs. But as unreal as it may be it still leaves an impression, a scar in the memory that will linger long after the drugs wear off and the nightmare fades.
Of all the illustrations in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is the one that stuck with me the most. Perhaps it was because it was the most monstrous, the one most like a horror movie or a fantasy novel. This was the kind of thing I gravitated to at that time in my life (to be honest it still is in many ways). But I think it might be because it represents something more than just horror or fantasy. The scene depicts a hallucination, and Steadman represents that well, but the character is experiencing more than just a psychotropic vision. It is also symbolic of the vicious underbelly of society and the character of Duke, in his heightened state, can see this. Beneath the trappings of polite society lies an animal nature ready to tear and rend the flesh of those they see as weak. Sure, that’s a bit cynical but nonetheless poignant.
And in many ways, Steadman’s work is like that. For me, Steadman’s work is off-putting and disturbing, but at the same time, it is vibrant and exciting. There is a sense of movement to his work, or maybe it’s better to say warping, as if the figures are pulsating, melting, and exploding off the page. It is as if reality has had its veneer pulled away revealing the dirtiness beneath. The pretty façade that we paint over society’s ills that helps us pretend that all is well is ripped away like a soiled Band-Aid revealing the bloodied scab underneath. Steadman’s work is not pretty, but it shows us what we need to see. And there is beauty in that.
Art is all around us and it leaves an impression on us whether we are aware of it or not. It can be something as simple as being aesthetically pleasing that brings a smile to one’s face, or dramatic like changing one’s perspective or belief. Everyday art has had and continues to have an effect on us. Life Thru Art is an ongoing feature where I discuss the works of art that have had an impact on my life in various ways both large and small. This is not meant to be an academic or critical examination, but rather an anecdotal one told through stories and feelings. – PMC