It’s all change right now for British artist and illustrator Edward Carvalho-Monaghan, a formerly London-based image maker with a keen eye for the strange and surreal. He’s moving house, moving cities, forgoing client work, reassessing the way he makes images, and inviting craft back into his practice—which sounds very neat and tidy when summarized in a single sentence, but is in fact the result of a long period of reflection and upheaval.
Monaghan became well-known in the UK for bright, mischievous illustrations that took inspiration from psychedelia, avant-garde music, and surrealist painting and literature, but, having seen his work ripped off on multiple occasions, has changed direction in the hope of breaking new artistic ground. While the results of his experimentation have been aesthetically successful, the financial rewards remain to be seen.
I don’t really give a rat’s ass as long as I’m sort of doing whatever I want to do.
“I suppose because I’ve been doing stuff that’s quite different to my old work I haven’t really been getting very many jobs from it,” he says. “Which I’m not too bothered about. I don’t really give a rat’s ass as long as I’m sort of doing whatever I want to do. But I realized I won’t be able to make much money from it at the moment. I think I just want to get a craft under my belt, and I think stained glass would be a really good one—try and learn the old processes and learn how to do glass painting.”
To that end Monaghan has left London after three years as a student at the prestigious Central St. Martin’s and four years building his career as a freelance illustrator. He’s moved back in with his parents for a spell and is considering taking on his mother’s stained glass business. “She’s very good at cutting glass and leading, and she has her own style but it’s limited because she’s no good at drawing, so I’m going to commit myself to that for a while and maybe start a business with her.”
His decision reflects a wider disenfranchisement not only with the challenges of living in London, but of making work that has some degree of permanence and integrity.
“Over the past couple of years I’ve been reading up on quite a lot of classical literature,” he says. “I suppose I was trying to find my way through Western philosophy, and see what was of value there. It seems to me at the moment that philosophically we are locked into a pretty horrible position. There’s a kind of constant irony about everything, and a lack of appreciation of there being any kind of substance to things. So I was trying to find what did actually have some fucking substance.”
Illustration today, argues Monaghan, increasingly suffers from the influence of social media, with the most adept at promotion and self-aggrandizement more likely to succeed than those with artistic talent. There’s a few that manage both, but they are few and far between, and the cult of personality pervades the industry—a cult that Monaghan is keen to steer clear of.
There’s a place for a celebration of beauty, which I don’t think is really appreciated as a value anymore.
It’s not just in the creative industries that he perceives this problem. “I basically think that Postmodernism and identity politics has seeped so far into almost every kind of creative outlet. When I look at contemporary art these days I feel I’m looking at societal protest. And that’s fine, I don’t really have any problem with that. But there’s a place for a celebration of beauty, which I don’t think is really appreciated as a value anymore. I’m just going to try to train myself, as well as I can, to draw and make beautiful things which are objectively beautiful.”
But is anything objectively beautiful?
“That’s a big problem,” he says, “because when you have Postmodern influence nothing is objective, is it? It’s all totally morally relative. But I think there are some things that are passed down and continue to be beautiful; the shadow on the cornice of a Roman building at certain points of the day. I mean, you never get tired of it. Or something like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. I went to see that last year and I thought, ‘This guy has spent his whole life trying to understand nature on its own terms.’ I think that’s a much more valuable thing to do than just try and do a political project. I’m just not interested in that anymore. I think it’s a bit of an empty thing to try and package into art—for me at least. There are perennial ideas and values that should take precedent, like the love of home, or the admiration of beauty. But in the current paradigm those ideas are just seen as part of an oppressive cis-het capitalist patriarchy. We really need to get a grip.”
These new ideas and influences are immediately clear in Monaghan’s latest work. Gone are the playful anthropomorphic characters and candy-colored backdrops, in their place are experiments with visual planes and perspective that pay homage to the work of Renaissance masters. Those Roman cornices find form in his new compositions, and in some images Boticcelli’s Venus takes center stage. Making a link between Modernism and Classicism is an ambition he’s working hard to achieve.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do a lot of the time in my work, and trying to look at eternal beauty—like the Venus. I mean, the Venus has become a bit of a meme these days; people on Instagram making kind of sexy art pieces of girl’s asses. It’s sort of crappy, superficial nonsense. But the powerful thing about the Venus is that life comes from the female body. That’s the point of the painting. It’s a symbol of beauty because you can actually bring something into being by recognising the beautiful. The Venus meme contains a set of contemporary ideas but an archetype, as I see it, has deeper roots to a fundamental human condition before paintings or literature came to attempt its expression. It has always been there and all the best art manages to capture a part of it.
“I think there’s much more to those sorts of classical ideas that need to be integrated into our current way of thinking, because they’re just a form of old archetype, aren’t they? Old stories that carry on in some way through the culture and through the ages.”
I think probably the best thing is to be part of a community in which you offer something to the next generation
Coupled with a change in artistic style, Monaghan is also keen to make changes to the solipsistic nature of his work, and take on more of a role in the wider community where he grew up.
“I remember when I was at school, my tutor would be ripping apart old exercise books for paper for the class because there was no source of investment put into that school. So I think I’d probably like to do a sort of workshop where I can get apprentices from places around the community, and find a more communal way of working. I think probably the best thing is to be part of a community in which you offer something to the next generation that you have learned. I don’t really know what else I can do apart from that. That’s what I would like to do in the future. Whether the fuck I get anywhere near there is another thing altogether.”