“All the Fun of the Fair” with Sir Peter Blake at Tate Liverpool
Britain’s famed Pop artist talks about his major retrospective in the home of the Beatles in the English Midlands
Seated in his London home, British Pop artist Peter Blake is certain of one thing. “My reasons for painting are not angst-ridden,” he states simply. Given the state of Britain’s contemporary art scene today, this refreshingly unpretentious statement from the “godfather of British Pop Art” comes as something of a relief.
Blake, the designer of the psychedelic cover for the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is probably one of the few living artists who can safely assume that his work defined an entire art movement in mid-1960s Britain.
His now-world-famous album cover depicts in collage the Fab Four, Elvis, Karl Marx, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin and others, huddled together in psychedelic solidarity—candy-striped hats and all. It is, in Blake’s own word, “celebratory” and, though his connection with the Beatles may in some ways, he says, be something of a cross for him to bear, the album cover is also a vision that went on to become one of the most recognizable icons of Britain’s so-called Swinging Sixties.
Hyperbole aside, the album cover is also representative of a warm-blooded type of UK Pop Art that differs greatly from the the variety produced by Blake’s near-contemporary from across the pond, Andy Warhol.
“I knew him but we never became friends,” says Blake of the eccentric US Pop Artist.
In fact, the whole US/UK Pop Art question is something of a can of worms for Blake, whose work predated that of Warhol by some years.
“In America it’s simple—Pop Art is American. They wouldn’t want to know that maybe they didn’t invent it,” he explains.
He even hints, only half in jest, of a deliberate attempt by the CIA to usurp Pop Art as the one and only irrefutably American fine art form. A cou- ple of years ago such an idea would have looked like oddball paranoia; these days, who knows?
Blake inhabits a studio in West London that recalls Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander or Angela Carter’s Magic Toyshop. Decorated policemen’s truncheons share space with tin wind-up Elvises and an oversized red disco clog, all looked over—not exactly benignly—by a life-size model of Sonny Liston.
Unlike that of his American counterparts, Blake’s Pop Art is somehow more organic than the serried cans of Campbell soup we are used to. Blake uses collage, pri- mary paints and “found objects” to conjure up a vision that is vividly irreverent and fun.
“You can make magic in painting that can only be made through painting,” he asserts.
Time after time in much of his work there are carousels and sideshows, psychedelic rainbows and starbursts of color—the kind of imagery we have all now automatically come to associate with the Swinging Sixties but which only a couple of years earlier would have been unthinkable in staid 1950s England.
“Suddenly you could paint something vulgar,” he says enthusiastically about the time, citing that “it was a rebellion just to paint.”
Blake’s work is definitely “all the fun of the fair” but that isn’t to say that his work doesn’t also skirt the edges of the political. Just like the creepy clown at the circus whose permanently happy mask seems to imply something mysteriously dark about his true nature, there is something about much of Sir Peter’s work which is akin to that un-pin-down-able, ever-so-slightly malign sensation that makes you glance over your shoulder at the fun fair after dark.
Presently, Sir Peter—he was ennobled by the Queen three years ago— is exhibiting, among many other works, his latest masterpiece: a number of paintings collectively entitled The Marcel Duchamp World Series in which Duchamp (he who exhibited a urinal in a Paris art gallery at the beginning of the 20th century and thereby made the assertion that anything can be art) embarks on a rock-and-roll tour of pop culture, complete with bus and requisite groupies. In one picture we see Duchamp visit the Tarzan family; in another, the first conceptualist looks on approvingly as Elvis greets the Spice Girls.
“Duchamp opened a door for all of us and I want to celebrate that,” says Blake.
Now, as he enters what he wryly refers to as his “late period,” Sir Peter is looking forward to new challenges.
“The excitement is that it (a late period) gives me a right to depart from my theme,” he explains.“There’s a part of me that would love to climb a ladder and throw paint at a canvas like an abstract expressionist… just like Pollock.”