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Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe Receives Honorary Doctorate From Academy of Art

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“Giant Judge & Hammers,” (31 1/2” x 81” sheet size) by Gerald Scarfe. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Art Exchange LLC, SFAE.com.

In the language of political cartoons, Gerald Scarfe’s voice is among the loudest. There aren’t too many artists who have dedicated their careers to parodying politicians and global figures, but Scarfe made his living off of ruffling feathers and eschewing public opinion. 

“I was encouraged to attack politicians and society around me,” he said at the Academy of Art University’s 79 New Montgomery theater on July 6. “That became my way of life for a long time.” 

The Academy presented Scarfe with an honorary doctorate in recognition of his decades-long work for English and American publications such as Punch, Private Eye, The Sunday Times, Time magazine and The New Yorker. His unapologetic, sometimes ostentatious comics depicted how Scarfe viewed the world around him, especially of those in power.

Saying that Scarfe regularly ‘attacked politicians’ is quite the understatement. His caricatures of figureheads such as President Donald Trump, former US President George W. Bush, former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher accentuated their physical attributes in ways that were often grotesque, with their policies, behaviors and overall demeanors symbolized through the comic’s tone. It isn’t uncommon, for example, to find Scarfe draw President Trump speaking from, let’s say, a different orifice on his body. 

“[Trump] is pretty easy to draw because he’s kind of obscure. He’s kind of a walking caricature,” he laughs. “When you’re drawing caricatures, it really comes from the character of the person themselves. I’ve picked up on [Trump’s personality], the way he talks with his hands. All of those things an artist takes into his computer-like brain and hopefully it’ll come down his arm and flows out of the ink and onto the paper.” 

In the late 1970s, Scarfe began conceptualizing the artwork for progressive rock band Pink Floyd’s 11th studio album, “The Wall,” and its subsequent film adaptation. His imagery mirrored the record’s themes of abandonment, self-isolation and oppression, told through Scarfe’s signature disturbing surrealism and animated sequences.

The movie version is considered iconic within pop culture and amassed its own cult following: Scarfe said he regularly receives emails from fans getting his work tattooed on their bodies. In March 2017, it was announced that “The Wall’s” original paintings are on sale for the first time ever and currently on display at the San Francisco Art Exchange. 

Highly metaphorical in nature, Scarfe’s artistic vision aligned with the album’s drug-addled and depressed protagonist Pink, inspired by band frontman Roger Waters’ own traumatizing childhood experiences. In the similar means that Waters used music to address his adolescent trauma, Scarfe used art and drawing to handle his own. 

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Acclaimed cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. Photo credit: geraldscarfe.com.

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"Monsters" by Gerald Scarfe. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Art Exchange LLC, SFAE.com.

Born in 1936 in London, Scarfe suffered from severe asthma. He said the drugs were unsophisticated back then so he  suffered and was constantly in the hospital. Unable to live a normal childhood, the boy Scarfe turned to drawing as his creative outlet. 

“As a small child, all you can do is to read and to draw when you’re bedridden, both of which I did,” he said. “I think the drawing became my way of expressing my fears about the world, putting down my thoughts about the world, trying to explain the world to myself.” 

Surviving his poor health, Scarfe got his first drawing job at an advertising art studio at the age of 16. He soon found out that drawing advertisements wasn’t authentic to the art he wanted to pursue: “These drawings we were making were misrepresenting objects; I was making shoddy goods look glossy and entertaining and luxurious—telling lies.” 

Scarfe is often compared to early British satirical cartoonists such as William Hogarth, James Gillray and the Cruikshanks (father, Isaac; brothers, Isaac Robert and George). He names Ronald Searle as his stylistic influence, but chose to model his artistic voice after Hogarth, Gillray and the Cruikshanks for the social commentary embedded in their cartoons. 

“They weren’t just drawing anything—pretty pictures and things like that—they were drawing actual things that affected their lives,” he said. “The whole point of being an artist, really, is to tell the truth about the world or something unusual about the world.”

The idea of censorship may be foreign to Scarfe but he doesn’t limit his art to just satirical cartoons, or even just 2-D illustrations. In addition to the flat drawings he did for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” he also crafted the sculptures for the band’s tour performances. He designed sets for on-stage productions such as Roald Dhal’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” “Orpheus in the Underworld” in England and “The Nutcracker” for the English National Ballet. 

In 1997, Scarfe was approached to design the characters and sets on the Disney animated film, “Hercules.” He said he enjoyed designing the various humans and monsters seen throughout the movie, despite Disney animators having to “cute-ify” his work for the final product (“Why does everything have to be cute?” he asked). 

As an artist, Scarfe has never shied away from an opportunity to draw anything in good fun or to comment on the political climate. His artistic perception, displayed to the public through his drawings, may appear warped or disfigured, but Scarfe’s cartoons have granted a service to consumers in baring the world for what it is at times: Bloody, disorienting and more often than not, greedy. 

An ardent supporter of free speech, Scarfe believes it is a privilege to be a cartoonist. He explained that he and others like him recognize the dangers of their occupation (he cites the 2015 Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo as a prime example of this) and he commends those “brave enough to put down their thoughts.” 

“When the country was talking about obscene drawings and so forth, I made this drawing of the burning of free speech, which I thought was an offensive cartoon,” he said. “We are so lucky in the West, really, to be able to say what we want to say and we must fight for that and keep on working for it.” 

At the end of his doctorate presentation, students were able to ask Scarfe questions. Many of the questions asked how to get around artist’s block, what kind of music does he listen to while he works, his influences and processes. What he really wanted to talk about, however, was how artists are necessary to not just the world, but how we as its inhabitants can perceive it.

“It’s such a weird job to do; being an artist is a weird job. ‘Who needs artists?’ you think,” he asked the audience of Academy students, faculty and guests. “People who make bread, nurses who nurse you, doctors, you need all of that. But do you really need artists? I think you do because they nourish the soul; they give you another dimension of life other than your workday and the basic necessities of life.”