William Drenttel | Essays

David Hughes: Caricaturist of Our Time

"Gulf War," illustration by David Hughes, Observer Magazine, 1991.

In the 1970s, I worked at the Forum Gallery in New York City. My job was to sort through hundreds of unattributed portraits by David Levine — the caricaturist for the New York Review of Books. The gallery wanted to sell them as drawings, and I was charged with determining who, exactly, was being satirized in each drawing — Roland Barthes or Czeslaw Milosz or Leonid Brezhnev. Once I had put a name to a face (not always an easy chore), I came to see that these finely-wrought ink drawings went right to the soul of the subject. The head was enlarged to the body, a particular trope of caricature. These caricatures were the only art in this publication (which was at the time very much in its heyday) and were, consequently, the only visual relief in a sea of text and literary illumination.

I was hooked, and I have paid attention to editorial caricature ever since.

There are, to be sure, many great contemporary caricaturists and editorial portraitists, among them: David Schorr, Vint Lawrence and Jack Coughlin in The New Republic; Edward Sorel in the Nation and the New Yorker; Robert Grossman in New York Magazine and the New York Observer; Ralph Steadman in Punch (long ago) and Rolling Stone; Robert Risko in the New Yorker; Philip Burke in Vanity Fair (long ago) and the New York Observer; and Steve Brodner in Harper's and Esquire. But my favorite, in recent years, is the British illustrator David Hughes. I yearn for his drawings, look for them in my favorite publications, and save them whenever and wherever I find them.

In The Savage Mirror: The Art of Contemporary Caricature, Steven Heller defines caricature as "a picture that exaggerates, or overloads, physical traits and features for the purpose of absurdity." Published in 1992, Heller's classic work is now long out-of-print. His "New Wave" of contemporary illustrators, a decade-plus later, have become the mainstay of editorial caricature — still doing distinctive and idiosyncratic work, these radicals no longer look so radical. As an art director, you want to turn to the best illustrators: those with a unique voice, an unparalleled style, or a particular approach to color, line or gesture. But in caricature, literal content and other known associations come into play: the secrets of a novelist, the foibles of a politician, the arrogance of a philosopher, the complexity of an actress. It is here that the caricaturist turns mere details into sheer absurdity. This is the brilliance of satire.

"Osama Bin Laden," illustration by David Hughes, Talk Magazine, 2001.

In a David Hughes drawing, the skew is on the exaggerated: the Saudi terrorist's lips grossly enlarged to his face; the World War I victim missing his legs; the Spanish Civil War scene draped in Nazi regalia. Some of Hughes's most wicked drawings are of the British Monarchy — the Princes Charles, Edward and Phillip. Not one to hold back, he has been equally piercing in his portrayals of Prime Ministers Tony Blair, John Major, Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath; and founder of the Referendum party, Sir James Goldsmith. These are caricatures ripe with politics and point-of-view.

"Prince Charles," illustration by David Hughes, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1994.

When aimed at American targets, the results are no less devastating: consider George Bush as a naked Yalie, surrounded by Skulls and Bones (a reference to the Secret Society of the same name) covered in swastikas. Hollywood presents another significant territory for Hughes, where, for starters, he has adeptly skewered David Letterman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ornette Coleman and Jack Nicholson.

"George Bush sr.," illustration by David Hughes, You Magazine / The Mail on Sunday, 1991.

Caricature is an essential part of every era. The 18th century brought the range of William Hogarth and George Cruikshank, followed in the 19th century by the deftness of the Thomas Rowlandson and Thomas Nast and the brilliance of Honoré Daumier. It is more than likely that the 20th century will be remembered for its stunning political torment, indelibly visualized by artists, like Hughes, who adeptly captured the rise of celebrity culture and partisan skirmishes.

But wait: there's more.

A new book of David Hughes drawings chronicles the artist's extraordinary body of work, and offers an unusual glimpse into his philosophical approach. Here, where I expected vision and largesse, I found the opposite: the extended interview which forms the text for this book reveals only another illustrator, bitter about his treatment by art directors and magazine editors. Hughes describes himself as "a simple soul who sometimes can draw spontaneously in an inspired manner, but usually it won't be inspired by a political motivated moment, more likely to be something based on relationships or just because some other human being has motivated me through money or the remote chance of fame."

Motivated by the remote chance of fame? Doesn't this minimize the distance between the seasoned satirist and the trumped-up celebrity seekers he parodies in his work? More critically, faced with the potential risk of catastrophe in the conflict between George Bush and Sadaam Hussein, Hughes is remarkably cavalier: "Sitting at my desk the thought of a world war appears to be quite exciting, as long as I can watch it from my armchair."

I began this essay with the idea of praising this book but find, in closing, that I am uncapable of doing so. I did not expect an armchair caricaturist with little engagement in the politics he chronicles. And while the caricatures of David Hughes remain some of the most crippling portraits of our time, it is the caricaturist that I can not quite come to terms with, and which, in the end, disappoints. Perhaps it is my own failing: why did I believe that strength of character was a necessary prerequisite for caricaturing others? It may well be that the art of exaggeration lends itself to a cynicism that's the real central ingredient: it's a kind of catalyst for crucifixion. In today's world, it's easy to see that cynicism trumps character: the pessimist in me wants to believe that this explains a lot. But the optimist, the purist, the artist in me wishes it were otherwise.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Illustration, Media, Politics

Comments [8]

Seeing David Hughes work here I am again reminded of how the design world and world of illustration have moved into the arenas formerly occupied by fine art. Not only are the subtlties and visual language in his work reminisent of traditional fine art rhetoric, but the style of the messy layered aesthetic almost seems to be self referential to previous notions of supreme cleanliness rampant throughout the computer generation. Self referential visual culture was an invention of visual arts but has been absorbed in design as well as peripheral occupations. It makes me wonder about how the roles these variouse forms of visual culture will evolve. What role can fine art play in the world when design and illustration have usurped it's current one?

Very rarely are great visual makers also great at verbalizing the things which drive them to create as well. Take Richard Long's writings, for example. HIs images reveal a poetic simplicity that his words fail to capture. Mr. Hughes' description of himself, however, is as piercingly honest, deprecating, and observant as the work which has made him famous. I find it somewhat expected that he did not spare himself his own ridicule. And as for his statement concerning what became an inevitable war, who wants to be responsible for the potential loss of thousands of lives? This may just be a another critical comment concerning his own petty comforts and his personal desire to maintain a stable, quiet, and leisurely life.

That said, I could just as easily be suffering from a case of wishful thinking; and Hughes is an ass. Hopefully, such is not the case.
grant ray

"I like!"

Hmm ... Seems like Hughes is brutally honest about himself, and maybe it's a lack of honesty he sees in those he satirizes?
Steven K.

There is a long article in Eye 55 (Spring '05) by Steven Heller, "Can caricature ever regain its power to savage and mock the blunderers in high office?" Reading it tonight, I'm sad I never mentioned the great C.F. Payne.

William Drenttel

I'm not sure I'd take Hughes's remarks that seriously. I've noticed that illustrators often cultivate this casual remoteness: "Who, me? I'm just a humble artist, making no claims about the relevance of my work..." Ralph Steadman, for instance, left the polemics to Hunter Thompson, and put all his savagery into the drawings.
Michael Bierut

I think that Hughes's remarks about himself and his works are spoken with the same outlook that brings him to create his great caricatures. He meets his life with the same cynicism that he uses for inspiration. The sarcasm that one can find in the images he creates is similar to his comment that he is motivated through money or the remote chance of fame. In a way Hughes is simply providing us with a mental image of himself as a caricature. After all the definition of a caricature is "a representation in which the subject's distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect."
Molly Sherman

It is interesting to see how this artist can express his thoughts through his drawings and makes his audience see how he feels; it's almost as if you have had a conversation with him. I agree with Grant Gray, Mr Hughes seems like an honest man, he doesn't hold back on ideas and is outspoken and opinionated through his designs. Hughes seems to be doing what other people are too afraid to do - express his true feelings about how messed up this world is when it comes to politics and terrorism. I find his drawings quite amusing, yes your right Steven K - he's brutally honest - I'd love to meet this guy to hear what he has to say but in a way its also quite scary having someone to show sarcasm in this much depth!
Bhupinder Ran

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