Peter Blake: One Man Show Marco Livingstone (Lund Humphries, 2009)
Though Peter Blake—now a venerable seventy-seven years old—is arguably one of our best-loved artists, this is the first monograph on his work. Ably compiled (with the assistance of the artist himself) by Marco Livingstone, a notable historian of the Pop Art movement, it is an engaging and authoritative study of Blake's art, highlighting the several influences which have shaped it and providing a thorough overview of the different styles and subjects of his diverse output over the years.
Blake had a fairly ordinary working-class upbringing, and was evacuated twice during the war. After leaving school at fourteen, he spent three years at Gravesend Technical College and School of Art before studying at the Royal College of Art in London. This unusual combination of a working-class childhood, early commercial training, and final, formative studies at the Royal College has given his work both contemporary immediacy and a connection with the art-historical past. From his earliest works to his most recent, certain common themes are always present: popular culture, traditional figurative representation, childhood memories and experiences, lists and collections of artefacts and images, and, above all, a very English sense of humour.
The book is lavishly illustrated, and showcases the full range of Blake's talents. From the early Pop Art works like The First Real Target? (1961) and The Toy Shop (1962), which show a young Blake interacting with popular culture, to his later paintings as a respected RA including The American Dream (1997-2003) and Marcel Duchamp's World Tour: He Meets the Spice Girls and Elvis (2000-2005), it chronologically charts his career. It is significant that when many artists—notably Bacon and the Abstract Expressionists—were proclaiming the emotional power of paint, Blake was pursuing a gentler approach which could be termed whimsical, but contains elements of considerable power.
Blake is perhaps best known for the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). There can be few people from that time who did not attempt to identify all the faces on the cover and figure out their connection with the music. Though the cover is one of Blake's most famous works, it remains one of the most enigmatic, least understood images of the period. It is often assumed that Blake designed the cover to the Beatles' precise specifications. However, according to Livingstone, Blake was sub-contracted to do the work. He collaborated on it with his first wife Jann Haworth, and they received a flat fee of just £200. Blake had previously explored the idea of strangers meeting in a crowd in two paintings (On the Balcony, 1955-57, and The Preparation for the Entry into Jerusalem, 1955-56). These pictures combine obvious references to art history with modern images from magazines and consumer products. Each is a bewildering juxtaposition of old and new, seemingly random, but in fact carefully arranged and meticulously executed. Indeed, it is clear from the reproductions that Sgt Pepper derives from these earlier experiments.
Playing the identity game with Sgt Pepper reveals famous figures such as Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe, WC Fields, Karl Marx, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Oscar Wilde, and many others. Such a disparate group immediately prompts quizzical speculation. With the Beatles appearing twice, both as themselves and as their Sgt Pepper alter-egos, the cover suggests links between present and past, fame and obscurity. Above all, there is the puzzle of how these people come to be in a Lonely Hearts Club, given their success. As with all good art, the question is asked but not answered.
Despite its ongoing popularity, it would be quite wrong to assume either that Sgt Pepper is the pinnacle of Blake's work, or that it is in any way particularly representative of what followed. One of the impressive things about this volume is the sheer quality and range of the artist's output over the long period of time in which he has been active. It is a special feature of Blake's oeuvre that while his style may be easily recognisable, the variety and substance of his subject matter keeps the spectator interested and alert to new possibilities.
As Livingstone observes, it was perhaps inevitable that, with his affection for Victoriana, memories of childhood innocence, humour and playful imagination, Blake would at some point decide to illustrate the work of Lewis Carroll. Unfortunately (from my perspective) he did not choose The Hunting of the Snark, but the more obvious Alice. From 1970-71 he completed eight watercolours, which were turned into screen-prints. The original book project for which they were intended was abandoned, but resurrected many years later: Blake's illustrated edition of Alice Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There was published by Merrell in 2006.
As one might expect, given this combination of author and artist, there is an immediately apparent otherworldliness about these illustrations. The screen-prints were completed under the direction of Chris Prater, founder of Kelpra Studios and the foremost technical master of screen-print production. Prater overlaid the coloured prints several times, creating a dense, textured quality that is perfect for the subject matter and Blake's dark and slightly mysterious images. The illustrations epitomise how this artist can engage the observer in a realm which remains essentially within the imagination, but which also has roots in the real world. My particular favourite is the depiction of Tweedledum as a tubby 1950s schoolboy, complete with badges and cap, about to throw a tantrum in front of a bemused Alice as Tweedledee disappears into the distance.
Livingstone's study shows just how versatile an artist Blake is, though he is forever linked with the Pop Art movement and its association with mass-produced objects. He has never really settled into a particular style, nor has he endlessly produced variations on the same theme. One must respect his enduring honesty as an artist and his enquiring spirit. For these qualities, and for the quintessential English sense of humour which Blake brings to his work, this book is to be warmly recommended.--Paul Flux