Ralph Steadman’s Wildly Illustrated Biography of Leonardo da Vinci (1983)

It is for good rea­son that we for­ev­er asso­ciate illus­tra­tor Ralph Stead­man with the deliri­ous work of Hunter S. Thomp­son. It took the two of them togeth­er to invent the gonzo style of jour­nal­ism, which we may almost call incom­plete now if pub­lished with­out the req­ui­site car­toon grotesques. Stead­man con­jures visions of dev­ils and demons as deft­ly as any medieval church painter, but his hells remain above ground and are most­ly man-made. Whether illus­trat­ing Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dic­tio­nary, George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm, the cast of Break­ing Bad, or the vis­ages of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, he excels at show­ing us the freak­ish fever dreams of the mod­ern world. He may, wrote The New York Times’ Sher­win Smith in 1983, “be the most sav­age polit­i­cal car­toon­ist of the late 20th cen­tu­ry.”

Steadman’s illus­tra­tive lega­cy places him in the com­pa­ny of history’s great­est visu­al satirists, but also makes him an odd choice for a biog­ra­phy of Leonar­do da Vin­ci. Though Leonar­do fre­quent­ly drew car­i­ca­tures in his note­books, the bulk of the Renais­sance genius’s work con­cerns itself with order and precision—the pur­pose­ful­ness of his line a stark con­trast to the crazed ink splat­ters of Steadman’s work.

Nonethe­less, Steadman’s I, Leonar­do, which he under­took not on com­mis­sion but on his own ini­tia­tive, exhibits a pro­found insight into the Ital­ian painter-sculptor-philosopher-inventor’s rest­less cre­ative mind. Leonar­do pre­sent­ed a very cool exte­ri­or, but his inner life may well have resem­bled a Stead­man draw­ing.

The project came to life in 1983 as what Stead­man called “a qua­si-his­tor­i­cal mish­mash,” a “tongue-in-cheek” sup­posed long-lost auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Leonar­do in pic­tures. “It is more than a col­lec­tion of illus­tra­tions on Leonardo’s life, based upon three years of work and research,” remarked a Wash­ing­ton Post review. “Stead­man does not mere­ly the­o­rize about the man, but attempts to go inside the artist’s bones.” Stead­man, writes Maria Popo­va, “even trav­elled to Italy to stand where Leonar­do stood, seek­ing to envi­sion what it was like to inhab­it that end­less­ly imag­i­na­tive mind.” The illus­tra­tions are a sur­pris­ing­ly effec­tive com­bi­na­tion of da Vin­ci-esque dis­ci­pline and Stead­manesque sick humor.

In his intro­duc­tion to the book, Stead­man com­ments on Leonardo’s split per­sona. His “expe­ri­ence showed him that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the pre­vail­ing atmos­phere of fine thoughts and high aspi­ra­tions…. 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 out­let in his more per­son­al notes and draw­ings.” Many of those draw­ings include the afore­men­tioned car­i­ca­tures of mon­strous, gri­mac­ing beings who would fit right in with Steadman’s night­mar­ish draw­ings.

The gonzo illus­tra­tor found a kin­dred satir­i­cal Leonar­do inside the famed mas­ter draughts­man and engi­neer. His inter­est in the Renais­sance artist’s anar­chic psy­che mir­rors that of anoth­er keen observ­er, Sig­mund Freud, who described Leonar­do as “a man who awoke too ear­ly in the dark­ness, while the oth­ers were all still asleep.” (Steadman’s first “his­tor­i­cal mish­mash” project was a 1979 illus­trat­ed Freud biog­ra­phy.) The artist behind I, Leonar­do has a slight­ly dif­fer­ent take on the sub­ject. Stead­man, writes Smith, saw Leonar­do “in 1980’s terms—as ‘a man tak­en up by a cor­po­ra­tion that couldn’t use him.’”

See many more of Steadman’s Leonar­do illus­tra­tions at Brain Pick­ings and pur­chase a copy of the book here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ralph Steadman’s Sur­re­al­ist Illus­tra­tions of George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm (1995)

Gonzo Illus­tra­tor Ralph Stead­man Draws the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dents, from Nixon to Trump

Break­ing Bad Illus­trat­ed by Gonzo Artist Ralph Stead­man

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.