From Muffheads to Eyeheads to warped political figureheads, Crack spent some time trying to get into David Foldvari’s head. Head.
A man as distinctive in voice as in technique, David Foldvari has forged a name for himself as one of the very finest illustrators currently working in the UK. He is utterly unapologetic in his singularly scathing and humorous vision, yet in constant demand by numerous impressively high-profile commissioners.
His work will be familiar to anyone who frequented Charlie Brooker’s G2 column between 2007 and 2009, or more recently David Mitchell’s Observer articles. There is clearly something in Foldvari’s approach which lends itself perfectly to these kinds of satire; something in his depictions of figures of political or cultural significance which captures a cynical glimpse beyond those familiar faces. A case in point isVersion, his 2008 work accompanying a two page Observer spread on the financial crash. It portrays a scowling Gordon Brown and a gurning Ronald Reagan (along with the impossible-to-hate Bill Clinton), their power-bloated chops surrounded by the words ‘For Sale’ and ‘Toxic’ and crudely-drawn dollar signs. It’s enough to make you throw on the Manics’ timelessly bleak The Holy Bible, get yourself all outraged and go slap some glasses off some faces.
But far from falling into the category of political illustrator, these commissions represent a mere glimpse into Foldvari’s world, and do no justice to the prodigious imagination we’re dealing with. His portfolio presents a remarkably varied selection of ideas, from the staggeringly crude and graphic Muffhead, to otherworldy creations such as the nightmarish Eyehead, or wry social commentary such as Button, which sees a man jumping furiously on an enormous red button marked ‘Complaints’. Meanwhile, his most recent exhibition, Trouble, which inhabited London’s The Outsider gallery for three weeks in July, is a series of beguiling and sinister portraits, intensely dark figures with blank eyes and elongated noses.
Who better, Crack thought, to pose some questions to one of our favourite imaginations than Diggy, another of the most exciting and unique illustrators on the radar. Just over a year ago her work, elaborate yet imbued with a wonderful sense of childlike simplicity, lit up these very pages – so much so that we’ve invited her back to do our job for us. So from Diggy, to David, to you …
I’ve read that you grew up in Budapest and moved to the UK when you were 12 years old. Your work seems to reference both Eastern Europe and urban Britain – do you remember much about your childhood, and do you think these memories come out in your sketches?
Hungary was still under communism when I lived there so my memories of that place are very different to what it’s actually like there now, I feel more like a tourist than someone visiting their old home whenever I go back. The general mood and graphic design of that era and the imagery I was surrounded by as a kid have definitely made an impact on how I see things now, and coming to London as a 12-year-old meant that the impressions I had of that time were suddenly intersected by whatever I saw as a slightly naive and impressionable kid suddenly dropped into a totally different kind of society. It’s the combination of these two very different places and the conflicts that arose from the transition between them that have shaped what I’ve ended up doing. It’s never really been deliberate, and I don’t necessarily want to talk about these things in my work all the time, but on some level you can’t avoid your past shaping the way you think and work.
What I see when I look at your work is that you’ve seen a darkness in humanity and look to expose it with loose dark ink and thought-provoking images. Is there any truth in that, or have I taken it the wrong way?
I’m not a particularly negative person and generally I actually tend to quite like people. The negativity which makes its way into my work is usually based around things that have troubled or intrigued me, and I’ve found that thinking about those things and subsequently basing work around them has helped me understand and deal with them. It may also have something to do with not being able to speak English as a kid, and spending a lot of time on my own in my early teens. I just got used to drawing pictures about these things because either I wasn’t able to express myself in any other way, or because I had nobody to talk to at the time. And that method of communication then became a natural way for me to express myself, even after adjusting to life in the UK, and making new friends and whatever else.
I often find people that sing happy songs are always a little less happy on the inside, and people that sing moody, sad songs are usually the happiest in normal conversation. The same theory can be applied to art – most people think that when an artist draws with a darker tone that they are troubled and strange. Do you get this judgement, and are you quite a sad soul or the complete opposite?
I totally agree – dealing with things that trouble you in the art or music you make, or through whatever other method you choose to express yourself, helps you to understand the world around you and stops your mind from imploding. I get accused of being negative all the time, but generally I’m happy, I’m having a pretty good time. But despite that, there are many things which I am concerned or anxious about, and these things will always make their way into the stuff I do.
Equally, some of your work is clearly angry, but in a humorous way, and this anger is often directed at contemporary culture. Are you genuinely an old-fashioned misanthrope, or do you just think it’s funny?
I’m definitely not old-fashioned, but the stupidity in contemporary mass culture annoys me, it’s a way of keeping people uninformed and dumb, and in that sense it’s very similar to communist propaganda. The only difference with communist propaganda was that you always knew it was just propaganda. With Western mass culture, you are led to believe it’s a symbol of freedom, when it’s actually exactly the opposite.
Where do you stand politically? At various points you seem to both address politics, but also make it seem ridiculous.
It’s a weird transitional time for politics, nothing is really working any more but nobody has been able to come up with a better system, so we’re living in this weird political limbo and just hoping that someone cleverer than us will provide the answers. But so far, they’re not.
Do you prefer creating your own visions of well-known figures, or the freedom of drawing completely imaginary creatures such as the Eyefaces or the Muffheads?
Both. The portraits of well-known people are generally done for commissioned work, and when it comes to doing my own work I tend to steer clear of that. I have no preference when it comes to doing personal and professional work. Illustrators have a tendency to belittle commercial work and concentrate purely on the personal work they do, but we are commercial artists by default, it’s our bread and butter, even if we may have less creative control over the outcome when we are working on commissions.
Are you generally quite creative? Do you have other outlets of creativity such as music, design or something random like ice sculpting, or do you spend most of your day with pen to paper?
I’ve always been involved with music in one way or another. I used to make electronic stuff for years, I had a little studio set-up with an old Akai sampler and a bunch of stuff like that, then when music software became a viable tool for putting music together I got rid of all the machines and started making music on my Mac, and then a few years ago I really started missing the hands-on approach and got fed up with just quantising and programming everything all the time, and started playing bass instead. In terms of creativity it’s a lot like putting Photoshop and the mouse away and picking up a grubby old pencil instead. There’s an honesty about playing an instrument which I really love, and it brings the music I make closer to the rest of my work. There’s less and less time to work on music the older and busier I get but it’s still a huge part of what I love doing.
Do you feed off other creative people, or do you hide away and create work from your own head and ideas?
I feed off everything I see every day, it can be the work of other creative people or just things that happen around me. I try not to look too much at what other illustrators are doing, I find that doing that just confuses or aggravates me.
Did you naturally adapt into your style of drawing or was it a found style influenced by artists around you?
It just evolved into what it is now over the past 15 or so years, and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to stay as it is forever. The way my work looks now is essentially a result of the personal work I do, combined with years of trying to enable myself to be able to respond to as broad a range of commissioned work as possible. Regular editorial work with ridiculously tight deadlines and having no real room for error has played a big role in that. Despite the hecticness and anxiety that comes with that, really quick editorial commissions with half-day deadlines are probably my favourite things to work on.
I noted a statement on your blog in which you encouraged illustration students to take inspiration from other media such as books, film and other forms of art. What things have you taken inspiration from in terms of your general approach, or for specific pieces?
Eastern European photography, graphic design and illustration from the 60’s and 70’s, American writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Paul Auster, Chuck Palahniuk, the stuff I got into as a kid in the late 80’s / early 90’s – the skateboarding culture and music that was going on at the time in London all had an impact. My first piece of published work was actually a comic called Aggression Session which I drew when I was 15, it appeared in a skate mag called R.A.D, which I believe eventually became Sidewalk, but I’m not sure – I doubt you’ll still find a copy of that anywhere, which is just as well …
Did you study illustration or fine art at University, or was it more of a side-venture that took off?
I studied at Brighton University and then at the RCA in London, although I wasn’t a great or particularly outstanding student at either of those places.
Do you think its important for younger people to study art/illustration in order to understand and have a career in it, or is it something that you just do or don’t and pick up on the way?
Studying art is essential – it’s really difficult to expand your visual and cultural awareness without some kind of education, and university also allows you to be surrounded by people who have similar interests to you. It’s a tough time for people wanting to study, I’m really not sure how anyone apart from the very well off will be able to afford any kind of an education. It’s worrying.
It’s hard to make money from just drawing what you want – do you find yourself doing more commissions or commercial work where your style is wanted more then your ideas?
Absolutely, but I have no real problem with that. Sometimes it’s nice to focus on technique. And blame others if the outcome is shit.
Do you thrive on commissions, such as record or book covers? As essentially an illustrator, surely that type of work is important to you.
Editorial work, such as the stuff I used to do for Charlie Brooker, and more recently in the Observer for David Mitchell every week is probably my favourite thing to work on, even if the results are not always great. They trust me and allow me to do more or less whatever I like, and the speed at which the work has to be completed keeps me on my toes.
If you could earn a living from doing anything apart from art, what would it be?
I would be a police officer or PE teacher. Just kidding. I’m completely unemployable, I would probably just be washing dishes in a depressing restaurant in Sidcup.
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Words: Geraint Davies / Diggy Smerdon
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