Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Gilliam reveals the surreal world of Monty Python art

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Art from London museums influenced Terry Gilliam's iconic animations for Monty Python
  • Gilliam's aesthetic Monty Python aesthetic was surreal and collage-like
  • Gilliam says his art was anything: "free and cheap and that I could cut up and move around
  • Imagery and sketches from Monty Python now used in a Facebook game

London, England (CNN) -- Few are in doubt that the legendary Monty Python troupe elevated comedy to an art form. But visual art was as much a part of their identity as silly walks and great songs.

Original Python and film director Terry Gilliam was responsible for the iconic animations that acted as buffers between sketches, as well as the opening credits of the TV series "Monty Python's Flying Circus" that ran from 1969 to 1974, and the Python films that would follow.

Instantly recognizable, they were anarchic sequences that often took famous works of art such as Botticelli's "Venus" and sculptures by Auguste Rodin, and forced them into unlikely situations for comic effect.

Gilliam, an American whose film directing credits include "Twelve Monkeys," "Brazil," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," began his career as an animator and strip cartoonist.

After meeting John Cleese in New York, Gilliam went on to form Monty Python with Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Cleese. Gilliam was initially brought in to do animations, though he later had some notable comic roles in the sketches.

Describing his aesthetic for the Monty Python animations, Gilliam said: "Mine was just anything I could lay my hands on, that was free and cheap and that I could cut up and move around."

"I used to always go down to the National Gallery (in London) when I was running out of ideas and I just wandered through and in fifteen minutes, I had a million ideas," he said.

"Basically, I communicated with paintings, had a little dialogue with a painting, either taking the piss out of it or treating it with respect. Those things just intrigued me," he continued.

I used to always go down to the National Gallery (in London) when I was running out of ideas and I just wandered through and in fifteen minutes, I had a million ideas
--Terry Gilliam
  • Monty Python
  • Games
  • Movies

In London to promote "The Ministry of Silly Games," a Facebook game using imagery and sketches from the show, both Gilliam and Python Terry Jones explained that art not only influenced the animations but also the content of many of their acts.

"Both of us are huge Bruegel and Bosch fans," Gilliam said. "(It's a) kind of a medievalist view of the world which seems to me to be a lot more alive and interesting than most of the iconography of our modern world."

Indeed, medieval hags and dim-witted knights cropped up regularly in their sketches and in the 1975 film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," a comedy mash-up of Arthurian legends.

But if the vibrant worlds of 16th century Dutch painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel provided inspiration for the Pythons' imagery and set pieces, other art movements were less helpful to their vision.

"The Renaissance was a disaster," Jones said. "Art suddenly got po-faced. You know, it was all being paid for by these fascistic dictators in Italy."

Gilliam's animations could be described as filmic collages for their use of cut-outs and found material, and for the way that their narratives are spliced together seemingly randomly.

Figures are grafted onto the bodies of animals; a couch potato has his eyes sucked out by the TV set; and an enormous foot descends from the sky periodically to squash the figures below.

Though surreal, Gilliam maintains that their aesthetic was not violent and that he finds current video games overly so.

"I mean, we created interesting worlds full of odd, bizarre, surprising elements and I think that's what gamers seem to want," he said.

"I don't know, most games I look at it seem to be incredibly violent. Our violence was much funnier -- bloodier -- but funnier," he continued.

Gilliam's distinct visual style is evidenced in his films, which are often fantastical and colorful forays into strange worlds, as with "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus", "Tideland" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."

The animations he developed with Monty Python, he said, influenced his later film style.

"Those were cartoons which were distorted, grotesque, the world is twisted, and it's kind of the same thing," he said.

Though it is just over 40 years since "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was first aired on British television, neither Jones nor Gilliam is slowing down. Gilliam is working to get his famously beleaguered film "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" off the ground and both he and Jones will be directing separate operas in the UK in the coming year.

"I'm trying to do something new in my dotage," said Gilliam of the process of directing "The Damnation of Faust" for the English National Opera in 2011.

"I'm terrified frankly, but we march on."