In an exclusive interview, we chat with famed British Pop Art pioneer Sir Peter Blake about his wartime childhood, his fame and storytelling in art, and how a collectible life never ends never really.
“It was then that Marcel Duchamp met the Spice Girls, at the same time as he met Elvis, sitting in his travel bus”, explains artist Sir Peter Blake of his Mystery Tour £ 2 . 10s. 0d. (2005), made from the coming together of icons of art and pop culture through the ages. Creating otherworldly scenes is “what surrealists did, a lot” and playing on celebrity myth and fantasy “is just part of the storytelling … Once you realize you can do it, it doesn’t. there is no reason not to do it ”.
During a career spanning seven decades, with retrospectives at Tate Britain (1983) and Tate Liverpool (2008), Blake, 88, holds a prominent place in the art world. Considered one of the great British living and knighted by Prince Charles in 2002, he is nicknamed the godfather of British pop art. The music lover is also famous for creating album covers for artists like The Who, Eric Clapton and Oasis, but it’s the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that remains his most recognizable work – a song almost legendary. -play, star collage. Blake tells us from his home in Chiswick, West London that he has been busy with a new exhibit, Peter Blake: Time traveler, at the Waddington Custot Gallery in London (June 18 to mid-August). Exploring his use of collage over a period of seven decades, it includes works from his famous Alphabet and Museum of Black and White series, his early collages from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as new unpublished pieces.
“I decided a few years ago to have exhibitions in a private gallery and to show everything as much as I could, rather than wait for the municipal exhibitions at the Tate or whatever. I had a show called Portraits and People, and one about drawings, and that’s the collage element of this adventure. Blake says that when he left his position as Artist-in-Residence at the British National Gallery at the age of 65, “I said I was retiring from the art world, but that didn’t mean that I would stop working. It just meant that I was withdrawing from greed, ambition and greed – all the nasty things; but I would continue to work.
Beyond the technical aspects, it meant a detachment from institutions (after so many decades “there is nothing left to compete with, in a way,” he says) but clearly his appetite for making art. did not weaken. “The format of this show has three elements,” says Blake. “It goes back to those early collages and then to a large piece called The Battle. Next, Joseph Cornell’s Holiday series – nearly 100 original pieces, was triggered after seeing American surrealist artist Cornell’s Wanderlust 2015 exhibit at the Royal Academy.
“It was about the fact that Cornell loved Europe and everything European, but had never traveled there. He knew where everything was in Paris, the architecture, the dancers etc., but never went there. I thought, “I’m going to do a series of collages and take him on the trip he never took, his dream trip!”
The play on the public figures of artists, icons and celebrities through the ages is his ultimate act of visual storytelling. There is real reverence for the stars as Blake skillfully plays with the power and myth of fame when creating these fantastic encounters. “Elvis is the rock’n’roll icon – it must be him, even though my personal hero is [the Beach Boys’] Brian Wilson. And in The Acropolis, I present a group of famous blondes: Marilyn, Lady Gaga, Blondie, etc., but Marilyn always comes out as the best girl.
This enduring fascination with the big screen, celebrities and pop culture goes hand in hand with a collector mentality. Blake says his famous Hammersmith studio is now “more like a museum,” housing his incredibly eclectic collection of trinkets amassed over a span of seven decades. This impulse to collect stems in large part from the rarity of his childhood in post-war England.
“I was pretty much a child of World War II. I went to art school when I was 13, so after being evacuated for much of the war and not being with my parents, I was suddenly a young adult going to school with little property or whatever, ”says Blake. “I went to a flea market near the school and bought a Victorian papier-mâché tray, a leather-bound Shakespeare set and a painting of Queen Mary. It started the collection.
Today, he still owns the tray and the Queen Mary in the immense collection of objects, bought for many years at auction or in flea markets. Period fireplace decorations can sit alongside pewter toy trains, eerie doll heads, or wonderfully eclectic art objects. These layers of collective history, the patient accumulation of stories accumulated over a lifetime, seem to provide a window into Blake’s colorful mind.
“It’s an integral part of that, the collection, admits the artist. “I kind of gave up now. Well, I thought I had until last week when I bought a few more at the Chiswick Curiosity auction – there’s a piece of two fighting hare taxidermy, which was gorgeous. His experience of the 1950s and the Swinging Sixies in London, when popular culture provided powerful subversion, has a sharp mark on this work. Along with this, there was an admiration for a new generation of creative working class heroes who fueled their own ambitions.
“I’m sure it’s because I’m from the working class,” says Blake. “When I went to Gravesend art school I lived at home and my background was very working-class – we did things like go wrestling or football… it was fairgrounds, circuses and cinemas in my childhood. I imagine that if I had been to Oxford or Cambridge or if I had been very rich, I would not have chosen the things that I chose.
When he was a child, Blake’s mother took him to the movies and eventually these movie stars became his heroes; later, characters like Elvis and comedian Lou Costello would all appear in his work. Late Period: Battle, his largest canvas to date (started in 1964, discontinued and completed in 2018), depicts a fantastical battle scene between “vaguely good and evil: the good are movie stars and the bad guys are wrestlers ”.
All of this came with the emergence of Pop Art, which he helped pioneer in the UK. In the United States, there were the neo-Dadaists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who preceded Pop Art in the early 1950s. The British scene was of a different kind: there was “an independent band led by Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, the Smithsons, Nigel Hendersons – they were all very intellectual, got together at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and talked about pop culture, and their Pop Art sort of came out of it, ”recalls Blake.
“At the same time you have me at the Royal College [of Art] from around 1954. As soon as I was free to paint as I wanted, the work became very autobiographical. Blake was forging his own way, on a path paved by people like Ruskin Spear – “Working class artists interested in the people around them: that was my branch of Pop Art.” He quickly discovered the medium of collage by sharing an apartment in the mid-1950s with the painter Richard Smith; Smith’s girlfriend’s family were friends of German artist Kurt Schwitters and “they explained to me what a collage was and all about his work.
“We used to go to the Royal College, do paintings there during the day and at night, we did collages. He cites getting into the RCA as a crux, as well as winning the John Moores Prize Junior Award in 1961 – “Competing against heavy hitters like Lucien Freud was very exciting to win that.” Move the clocks over 60 years old and Blake regales me with stories from that decade or that. The artist’s soft voice often bursts into laughter at the surreal scenarios he found himself in, such as a joint exhibition with famous chimpanzee movie star Cheetah (from Tarzan), who had apparently “retired” to to paint.
He remembers visiting Hong Kong decades ago, when the city’s skyline included only a handful of skyscrapers. We talk about the night market, seeing Cantonese opera singers and visiting “a four-story restaurant where the higher you go, the more authentic it is. On the top floor they bought some dishes on trays and you spat the bones on the floor. I love Chinese food, so I had a great time there. In town, he bought a ceramic peanut a foot long on one of the outer islands. “Yeah, it’s still in the collection! “
Today, there is obviously not much travel for Blake. He could attend a few key exhibitions in London, and still follows a few artists (although many he admired “are, of course, dead”). He always flips through his art books (Lucien Freud’s earlier work is still a favorite) and while working enjoys listening to JazzFM.
“As a young man, I attended a lot of jazz concerts,” Blake says, citing Chet Baker as his favorite. There is also a love for Dionne Warrick and her constant admiration for her musical hero Brian Wilson (Blake made the cover of That Lucky Old Sun album). These provide the reading list as Blake heads into his ninth decade.
Faced with such milestones, there is always the subject of inheritance. At 75, the artist announced his own “Late Period” (something usually left to others). “I had already started this kind of game, right now I have this curious feeling that if my career was circular, I would have come full circle,” says Blake. “In a way, I sealed it. I am separated from the art world now, both beyond and behind, but still working.
As for the legacy, it seems that this Pop Art godfather managed to write much of his own. When his contemporary, artist Richard Smith, was alive, “I used to joke that he could use that title whenever he wanted… Or he could be the grandfather and I the godfather, that which is good. I like this. It’s not quite true, but I like it.
(Hero Image: Sir Peter Blake at work in his studio)