Peter Blake, Sgt. Pepper Image Maker, Likes Crowds: Interview

Homage to Damien Hirst
"Homage to Damien Hirst: The Butterfly man, Hollywoodland" (2010), a collage on inkjet by Peter Blake. The work is on show in "Homage 10x5: Blake's Artists" at Waddington Galleries, Cork St., London, through Dec. 11. Source: Idea Generation via Bloomberg

Peter Blake isn’t only an artist, he’s also a collector, of an unconventional sort.

Blake says he owns “what I’ve begun to bill as the worst doll collection in the world, which is made up broken, funny, celluloid dolls.” Another item is a set of small plastic models, described on the box as “people being frightened in B movies.”

His collection is on view at the Museum of Everything, London W1 (through Dec. 24). Items culled from Blake’s hoard -- part image bank, part magical mystery tour through the ephemera of the day before yesterday -- have been glued and fitted into work in his new exhibition, “Homage 10 x 5: Blake’s Artists” (Waddington Galleries, 11 Cork St., London until Dec. 11).

This is, as he explains, a tribute to 10 artists he admires, “the ones I’ve most enjoyed over the years and wanted to pay homage to.” Some of these tributes, five to each of Blake’s heroes, are quirky to say the least. On a model 16th-century warship, those B-movie victims -- wide-eyed and holding up their hands in horror -- are engaged in one-sided battle with medieval knights in armor.

This is one of a series of miniature galleons, paying tribute to the U.S. artist H.C. Westermann, on which Blake has staged combats between, as he puts it, “people you wouldn’t expect to be fighting.” This kind of art is what you would expect of the most whimsically humorous of U.K. Pop artists.

Jagger Neighbors

Blake, wearing a black three-piece suit like a Victorian farmer and sporting a white goatee, has been a Pop artist since before such a term existed. Born in 1932, he was brought up in Dartford, Kent, on the outskirts of London. It was just the kind of ambience in which British rock music was incubated (Mick Jagger’s family lived nearby).

It’s no accident that Blake’s best-known work is the cover of the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” album (1967). That celebrated group of kindred spirits from Aleister Crowley to Fred Astaire is an example of one of Blake’s favorite subjects: crowds.

There are more Blake mob scenes in his collaged homages to Damien Hirst, youngest of the artists in his top 10, whom he admires “enormously.” In these landscapes, butterflies (a Hirst trademark) hover above a motley population of movie stars, acrobats and onlookers culled from a set of obsolete French encyclopedias Blake once bought at auction.

If there’s a common thread among the diverse artists he has picked, Blake muses, “it’s the use of collage.” One of them is Kurt Schwitters, who usually included a bus ticket in his Dada works. “In a way, he invented the idea of making a piece of art from a piece of rubbish. So I’ve always paid respect to him.”

Quick Nostalgia

Blake says “I bring something different into the painting world. My art brings in popular art and music.” Part of it, he says, is “a love of things past, but it’s never been that slightly cute love of Victorian pots or something. The work is often nostalgic, but it can be a nostalgia for an hour ago or last week.”

He grew up a fan of popular entertainments such as fairs, boxing, circuses and wrestling. These enthusiasms inspired early works such as “Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady” and “Siriol, She-Devil of Naked Madness.”

The phrase “Pop Art,” he believes, originated in a conversation he had with the critic Lawrence Alloway at a party in London in the late 1950s. “I was describing to him what I was trying to do,” Blake says. “And he said, ‘Oh, you mean a kind of pop art?’ That’s how I think the phrase was born, but there are many other versions.”

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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