Arm the mice and put Damian Lewis in a banana suit: In conversation with Gerald Scarfe

With our exhibition Gerald Scarfe: Stage and Screen now on tour in Winchester, our work placement student Rachael Kosinski revisits a Q&A we hosted with the political cartoonist in the gallery earlier this year...

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  • Rachael Kosinski
  • Exhibitions

Gerald Scarfe created cartoons for the Sunday Times for over five decades and now makes political cartoons for the Evening Standard. Heads of state such as the current US president, the British prime minister and the leader of the DPRK – plus figures at the centre of Hollywood scandals – have seen themselves transformed by his ink pen into ghastly versions of themselves which sometimes reveal frightening truths.

Besides newspaper cartoons, Scarfe has a background in designing theatre, something he hopes to do more of in the future. One of the first pieces he made for the stage was Orpheus in the Underworld in the 1980s, for which he designed every backcloth and up to 500 individual costumes. Many of the actors were dressed as fruit and Scarfe recalled, years later, Damian Lewis approaching him at a party with the line, ‘I was your banana.’

Scarfe explained how a ‘sort of sticky beginning’ shaped his imagination. ‘I was a chronic asthmatic, bedridden with no friend. It was wartime and my father was in the RAF so we had a nomadic life, following him around. It was a very insecure, uncertain life and I think all of that played into me.’ He spent his childhood reading and drawing and explained how ‘transposing and transmogrifying’ things on stage and in his art is incredibly therapeutic. He is thankful that along the way no one has forced him to reign in his style—even when he dressed the mice an English National Ballet production of The Nutcracker in gas masks and armed them with AK-47s.

Scarfe was one of only two ‘outsiders’ who were ever invited to help Disney with a film. The other was Salvador Dali. Disney’s Hercules bears Gerald’s strong influence in the long, beaky noses of the Fates, in Hercules’ curlicue chin, and in the pointed fingers of Hades.

Gerald Scarfe: Stage and Screen is at the Winchester Discovery Centre until 27 June 2018. Find out more about our touring exhibitions.