Gerald Scarfe

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design is appointing Gerald Scarfe as an Honorary Professor for Design and Craft, and he will be giving a free public talk in May 2012. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary degree by us, and I was fortunate to give the laureation address. Below is an edited version of what I said.

Please note: this week’s talk by Gerald Scarfe has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. We will reschedule later in the year.

During the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland Gerald Scarfe – perhaps a little inadvisably – drove into the Bogside, and sat in the passenger seat to do some drawings. After 20 minutes a car pulled up quickly in front of him and four men leapt out, driving him away at gunpoint. He was let go, but not before one of the IRA men studied his sketchbook carefully and said to him “ah, but you’re a brave drawer”.

Gerald Scarfe is a brave artist in all respects. He is perhaps best known as a political cartoonist  – indeed as the political cartoonist who redefined the medium from the 1960s. For the past forty years he has worked for The Sunday Times, bringing his unique style and insight – a venomous visual ferocity – to a wide audience and international acclaim. In 2007 he was voted Cartoonist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

Great art is brave. It takes risks, it reinvents, and it connects with the world around it.

Working as a reportage cartoonist in Vietnam, in Calcutta and in Northern Ireland enabled him to take the idea of the cartoon into a new domain, redefining the cartoonist as a reporter.

For Gerald Scarfe, his relationship with his audience is a vital one, and his long-standing work on the Sunday Times has enabled him to take the readership with him on a journey of the visual interpretation of events and the people who make them.

The other thing about great art, is that it is never satisfied with one medium or one audience.

For many people of my generation, particularly those outside the UK, Scarfe is not known as a political cartoonist, but as the artist who took the music of Pink Floyd into a startling and disturbing visual dimension.

His collaboration with Pink Floyd centres on The Wall – an album that sold 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all-time.

As well as the record sleeve design, Scarfe was responsible for the sets, graphics, videos and animations of the 1980 world tour of The Wall – the tour that was to wholly redefine the rock performance as a multimedia event. Two years later he was the film designer and animator for the Alan Parker directed movie of The Wall.

So in two decades Scarfe’s work had moved from the rarified readership of Punch to a live global audience, making him one of the most influential designers, illustrators and artists of his time – certainly influencing a whole generation of visual artists and animators.

Scarfe’s work can be considered in terms of the lineage of British caricaturists that stretch back to Gilray, Rowlandson and Hogarth. But his creative career has taken the unique art of caricature into new directions and new media.

A film maker for BBC and Channel 4, a theatrical set and costume designer for numerous productions, a designer for opera and dance, a designer for a set of Royal Mail postage stamps, a production designer for the Disney film Hercules, creator of a unique project with the National Portrait Gallery – Scarfe’s work just over the last decade reveals his insatiable appetite for new creative challenge and risk taking.

Gerald Scarfe has said this: “I don’t think cartoons in any way alter anything that happens in the world.”

With the greatest of respect I have to disagree. As a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s trying to make sense of a world defined by Vietnam, Biafra and pub bombings, I found his cartoons in the paper that fell onto our doormat every Sunday hugely provoking and engaging. They influenced how I thought, and I am sure how many others thought too. Gerald Scarfe’s cartoons remind us why it is right to be angry about events in our world and why it is vital to be passionate about truth and justice.

Gerald Scarfe is an artist who has had an unequalled impact on our visual culture. He has significantly extended the art of caricature, he redefined the role of the political cartoonist, he married the visual arts to music and performance, and he used all media at his disposal to fully engage his art with his audience – with us. And he has done all this with a profound sense of responsibility and artistic honesty.


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