david hughes and his vision of ken kesey’s ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’


David Hughes describes himself as “a graphic designer who happens to illustrate.”

Among his famous illustrations are those for Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), a controversial novel invested in portraying 1960s psychiatry and masculinity in unrelenting detail.

Ken Kesey’s novel depicts a mental asylum in which repeated attempts to diagnose the patients as insane are conceived as part of a larger scheme to produce pliant, docile subjects across the United States. A key text for the antipsychiatry movement of the 1960s, it addresses the relationship between sanity and madness, conformity and rebellion. The novel remains finely balanced throughout. It is never clear, for example, whether the so-called “Combine” is, in actuality, a boundless authority designed to ensure social control across the whole population, or a projection of the narrator Chief Bromden’s paranoid imagination. Also, the question of whether insanity, to quote R. D. Laing, “might very well be a state of health in a mad world,” or at least an appropriate form of social rebellion, is raised but never quite answered.

– Britannica (full summary and introduction to the text can be read here)


David Hughes’ contribution to the Kesey’s novel provides a vision to the subject matter as it is experienced, men restricted to the entrapment and violence of a psychiatric ward. The narrative becomes a fusion of the body and the mind: the white sterility of the ward, the pills and institutionalised enslavement as the narrator’s only physical experience. There are few other narrative settings in literature that so obviously and devotedly unify the mind and body, set during the 1960s as a critique to psychiatric therapies and the state.

Ideas of the mind and its various treatments become foreground to the novel’s static physical setting. In the animated and fluid style of Hughes’ illustrations, we can see a similarity to Matisse’s sketches for James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the same way Matisse’s etchings exhibit the space of Ulysses (the depth of the novel and its voyeurism through different spaces), Hughes’ empty spaces frame the subjects of each piece and remind us of the sterility and antisocialism of the ward in which they are set. In their composition and caricatures, Hughes’ illustrations seem to challenge and parody primitivist art from the 20th century, which links to the novel’s own narrative (the novel is narrated by “Chief” Bromden, “a gigantic yet docile half-Native American patient who presents himself as deaf and mute”).

Hughes’ writes on his blog,


“Latest project for the Folio Society an illustrated version of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I was very fortunate, no damn lucky to land this assignment and I expect that there are many others who will find fault with my interpretation. I imagine there will be a good few, in fact, hundreds of illustrators out there who would have given their right arm and leg to tackle the Cuckoo. I was the lucky one. Now on seeing the beautifully produced book I feel that I may have done it some justice but not completely.”



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