Back in 1969, Hunter S. "Gonzo" Thompson (author of Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ) was looking for an artist to accompany him on an assignment to cover the Kentucky Derby. "It'll require somebody with a serious kink in his brain," Thompson said. So his editor friend got in touch with Ralph Steadman, an Englishman who illustrated for Punch and Private Eye, and sure enough, Thompson got his wish. Instead of the Beautiful People sipping mint juleps and enjoying the races on the Bluegrass Field, Steadman drew caricatures of the ugliest people: instead of horses, a flock of repulsive looking men and women crawling across the finish line, their faces splattered with ink.
The Kentucky Derby is a part of Steadman's recent collection of drawings, America , where he takes us on a visual tour through New York, Las Vegas, Dallas, the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, the Watergate trials in Washington, and Disneyland. They were drawn in what seems to be another era when Vietnam and Nixon were around, when the counterculture was fashionable, indeed the only decent thing to identify with. Times have changed and Steadman's drawings today seem more like the warning note on his title page: "the ravings of a demented scribbler."
But one need only consider Posada's Mexico in the 1900s or George Grosz's Germany in the 1920s to realize that some of the most powerful political and satirical drawings were produced in such turbulent times. And like Steadman, because of their "demented" view of society, they drew powerful personal statements that are as disturbing today as they were in their time.
The ambience that Steadman's drawings evoke ranges from Francis Bacon's anguish to George Grosz's biting satire. In a drawing illustrating the food shortage, Steadman draws a Swiftian" Modest Proposal": Lunch at a Poolside table is served by the butler of the mansion to an emaciated elderly couple in their bathing suits. Their meal is the pet poodle on a silver platter, a ribbon tied around its head.
One such outrage follows another. Even the most sacred symbols of America are spared no vituperation. The cumulative effect of these drawing is so depressing that one might need to flip through a volume of Norman Rockwell's drawings. (Random House/Rolling Stone Press; paperback, $6.95)