Review of Josh Kirby at Liverpool Walker

Image used with permission of the trustees of the Josh Kirby Estate

Skipping The Light Fantastic – Out of this World: the art of Josh Kirby
Written by Stuart Ian Burns

I spent lunch time today at a literally fantastic exhibition at The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, Out of this World: the art of Josh Kirby. Kirby was a painter and illustrator working mostly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres and perhaps best known for his work on all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Pleasingly in the style of the kind of retrospective display you might expect for old masters, it spans the artist’s career from his first faltering steps at Liverpool City School of Art (including quite a remarkable portrait of a bearded man picked out in thick black lines) through to his cover for the Pratchett novel Thief of Time just before his death in 2001.

It’s something of an eye opener for anyone who thought the many appearances of Death, Rincewind and Granny Weatherwax were the limit of his powers. Some of the most interesting works in the exhibition are those he created to order for a children’s jigsaw company, all action scenes of men at war or women at sport, characterful faces that plead with the viewer to create back story. Alongside those are early book covers for the likes of Pan publishers, lurid tableaus of romance and adventure, totally distinctive and a chock full of imagination.

Kirby was also in demand for film posters and his iconic, rather wonderful painting for Return of the Jedi is here next to an unused image for Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (so detailed that it had to be dropped because it included scenes that had been edited out of the release print of the film). There’s also a fairly remarkable still life, a collection of vegetables on a table — what makes it quite so unique is its size, filling one whole wall of the gallery, massive potatoes and cabbages.

But, apart from some extraordinary portraits of Alfred Hitchcock created for the film director’s series of anthologies, the majority of the works are from his forays into fantasy and it’s here that he is at his most comfortable. Discworld fans are well served with a range of illustrations from the picture book Eric nestled with a range of covers from The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, through to Reaper Man and beyond, accompanied by descriptive text that importantly takes its subject seriously and explains the plot details or notes differences between the published work and the paintings which Kirby often embellished for his own amusement after their use.

Throughout this work and the material he produced for other novelists such as Tom Holt, there is an obvious selection of motifs. Kirby likes his women to either be old hags or large breasted amazons in metal bikinis and his men tend to be muscle bound warriors in nothing but a pair of shorts, all of humanity stretched into some kind of kinetic action pose, scenes filled with details only apparent when looking close up, stepping away becoming a mess of colour. But there are Hogarthian influences particularly in the pictures of trolls and dwarfs, ogres and wizards, grotesque faces filled with character. It would be easy to dismiss the collection as a kitsch overload where it not for the humour.

It is an amazing exhibition then, but also a bit of a tease. It’s difficult not to look at some of the science fiction covers with their promise of surreal alien landscapes and not want to go off and find the books themselves. The only problem is often Kirby didn’t have the actual text to hand before he put paint to paper and just painted what interested him. Which means the stories are bound not to be as good as the pictures…