This extract from ‘Peter Blake’ explores the artist’s dynamic work, enduring influence and eclectic subjects – from Elvis Presley to Adam and Eve.
Born on 25 June 1932 into a working-class family in Dartford, Kent, on the south-eastern fringes of London, Peter Blake developed an early taste for many kinds of popular entertainments including the cinema, the circus, wrestling matches, jazz and popular music. All of these passions found their way naturally into his art by the time he was in his early twenties as a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Art in London between 1953 and 1956. During the same years that older artists such as the Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi (born 1924) and the English painter Richard Hamilton (born 1922) were laying the theoretical basis for Pop Art through their participation in the Independent Group, a collection of radical artists, architects and critics who met at the Institute of Contemporary Artists in London, Blake was creating his first proto-Pop pictures as a direct, unpretentious and sincere response to his immersion in popular culture. Some of the earliest of these, such as Children Reading Comics, in which he depicted himself as a boy with his younger sister, were explicitly autobiographical. These established a precedent for celebrated later works such as Self-Portrait with Badges, in which he displays himself festooned with metal badges and clutching an Elvis Presley fan club magazine.
In his paintings of imaginary circus performers or invented wrestlers, Blake positioned himself in the role of the admiring fan. He stated this even more obviously in his first full-blown Pop pictures from 1959, in which photographic images – either of movie stars such as Kim Novak and Tuesday Weld or of popular musicians including Frank Sinatra and the Everly Brothers – were glued onto hardboard panels that were brightly decorated in primary colours to resemble fragments of doors and walls. The notions of the celebrity icon and of the passionate fan, each needing the other for sustenance, first emerged as important themes in Blake’s work at that time.
Blake’s art is firmly grounded in the working-class existence that he led as a child and teenager, and in his academic training in disciplines including life drawing and lettering. The artist’s early family life and his art-school education at Gravesend School of Art provide a touchstone for an understanding of his later development and of the nostalgic impulses at work in much of his mature art. The yearning for the innocence of childhood that gives much of Blake’s work a bittersweet quality is already apparent in paintings of the early to mid-1950s depicting children reading comics or going to the Saturday matinee at the cinema; his choice even of Adam and Eve as a subject for a small painting in about 1954–5 provides evidence of this desire to return to a state of grace. Likewise, the various figurative traditions from which Blake drew sustenance in his earliest work – naturalistic and academic approaches ranging from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Flemish and German portraiture through to nineteenth-century British and Continental precursors – have provided a constant reference point to which he has continued to return from his forays into more experimental areas.
While studying at the Royal College, Blake concerned himself with popular entertainments as both the subject matter and the source of formal solutions for his paintings. The cinema, the circus, the funfair, wrestling and popular music, previously largely neglected or derided as beneath the dignity of the fine artist, were appreciated as forms of creative expression in their own right, to be honoured for the glimpses they offer into mass culture. The very notion of presenting his own art in the guise of entertainment was a radical and iconoclastic one in its affront to the earnest seriousness and high moral tone characteristic not only of academic traditions but also of much avant-garde art of the twentieth century. Allying himself with journeymen decorators, sign painters, commercial artists and self-taught naive painters, Blake bravely and democratically declared himself as an artist of the people rather than as one who wished to address only his fellow painters or a cultural elite. He did so not only through his choice of subjects, but also by apparently submerging his own artistic identity into that of existing styles from outside fine art traditions, presenting his paintings as if they were objects he had found ready-made in a timeworn condition.
The directness with which Blake gave expression to his enthusiasms for mass culture during the 1950s – independently of the investigations of other British, American and European artists into similar areas – brought him to the forefront of the Pop Art movement before it had even been named. As soon as news filtered back to Britain in the late 1950s of the incursions into popular culture by American artists – as exemplified by the flags and targets of Jasper Johns, the ‘combines’ of Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers’s paintings based on found imagery and such banal artefacts as playing cards or restaurant menus – Blake was poised to act on his understanding of the radical implications of this new work.
The cheeky aside to Johns represented by The First Real Target? (1961), delivered in a spirit of both homage and challenge, provides evidence of the role allotted to humour in Blake’s art but hints also at the importance attached by him and other artists to the question of influence and historical precedence. While much attention has rightly been given to the discussions of the Independent Group in London during the 1950s in creating an intellectual atmosphere in which Pop Art could flourish, and to the work produced by Hamilton and Paolozzi in relation to their membership of that group, Blake’s early and sustained exploration of his own brand of Pop Art has often failed to be given due credit. The fruitful dialogue that he established both with contemporaries such as Richard Smith and Joe Tilson and with younger artists including David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, Patrick Caulfield, Pauline Boty and his future wife Jann Haworth also made him a singularly influential figure within British Pop.
Of how many artists can it be said that inspiration has been drawn not only from such heroes of the Modernist avant-garde as Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, but also from turn-of-the-century children’s book illustrators and from Victorian fairy painters such as the obsessive Richard Dadd? As with his determination to explore different art forms, Blake considers diversity to be a virtue and one of the defining characteristics of his art. Though he may admire the single-mindedness of some of his fellow artists, he himself has always been convinced that he does not wish to be the type of painter who always does just one thing. Moreover, while other artists look constantly over their shoulders at what their contemporaries are doing, or act as self-censors of elements that might not be considered acceptable to the art establishment, Blake follows his intuitions and desires wherever they may lead him. His decisions are dictated by a single, unwritten rule: to make art that encompasses the whole of his experience, personality and view of the world. The virtues in which he sets store are almost embarrassingly old-fashioned ones – individuality, honesty, love, companionship, hope, kindness – relayed in a quiet but often humorous and self-deprecating tone.
Blake’s art gains much of its strength from a vigorous interaction between public and intensely private spheres. His is a world in which we appear to be standing on firm ground, but in which strange and inexplicable events suddenly occur. By introducing us to characters in disguise, such as wrestlers notorious for playing on audience fantasies, he gently prods us to dig deep into our own imaginations and to restore something of the child still lingering within us. We may cringe at the idea of believing in fairies, but how can we remain unmoved by the magical atmosphere summoned forth in such Shakespearean paintings as Puck, Peasebottom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed (1969–84) or the portrait of Titania – Queen of the Fairies (1977)? In more recent paintings, such as the Madonna of Venice Beach series (1990 and 1994–6,), he has turned his attention to other subjects deemed out of bounds in the twentieth century, again revitalising and reinventing a tradition in his own terms. The same principle by which he has revealed his works at varying stages of completion was now applied to the entire history of art as a single unit, existing in the present and in a constant state of flux: alive and kicking.