‘When I’m Not Working, I Should Be Working’: Peter Blake Speaks to Nicholas Cullinan
The Curator of Frieze Masters Talks sits down with one of the pioneers of British Pop Art to discuss his portraits, postcards and the uncanny
The Curator of Frieze Masters Talks sits down with one of the pioneers of British Pop Art to discuss his portraits, postcards and the uncanny
Nicholas Cullinan: First of all, Peter, I wanted to ask what you’re working on. And, of course, talk about the wonderful portrait of Michael Eavis that you did for us at the NPG.
Peter Blake: I haven’t been well for a couple of years. So I’m working at home. What I’m working on is a record cover for Paul Weller for his next album. And I’ll be working on a new series of collages, all based on books. One is called the ‘Big Little Book’ series. This is an American phenomenon: they’re small, about three inches square. The first three that my daughter sent me from the States were the Lone Ranger, Tarzan and Lassie. The second series is called ‘Larousse’, based on the French dictionary, which is full of illustrations. And the third series is called ‘Hogarth’. Around it are comic book images and footballers and speedway, then right in the middle is the Hogarth.
NC: It’s interesting you talk about collage. It seems to me that in all of your work there’s this very interesting relationship between painting and collage, and you oscillate between the two, but you also combine the two. In the context of the Michael Eavis portrait, what’s your relationship to portraiture within your work, and in general, when you look at other artists?
PB: I’d describe myself as a jobbing portraitist. The main thing is to get a likeness, and I work from a photo. I painted the Queen three times, but I never had a sitting with her. What I’ll do is take a photograph and trace it, so that I’m starting my portrait with a pretty good likeness. And then I fill it in. It’s a very mundane, workman-like process, but it gets a likeness. In the three pictures of the Queen I managed to capture something that was very, very like her.
NC: But you also very much have your own aesthetic and your own style. There’s a lot of variation and change in your body of work, but it’s all recognizably Peter Blake. Just talking about the Michael Eavis portrait, we approached you to do the portrait because the NPG is quite unique and commissions portraits. I know you don’t take commissions normally.
PB: Well, my history with the NPG is that I’ve always been involved. I was on the selection panel for the young artists’ competition. We tried to work out commissions. I always wanted to do Henry Cooper but he wasn’t dead; you had to be dead then, didn’t you?
NC: That was changed. You had to be dead for at least ten years before you were eligible, unless you were the reigning monarch or their spouse. Then under Roy Strong, my predecessor in the late ’60s, we began not only collecting portraits of living people, but commissioning as well.
‘I do work. Every day I work. When I’m not working, I should be working.’
PB: He wanted me to do the portrait of the Queen when Annigoni did the second one . I think the Queen vetoed it. She probably thought she’d be kind of Pop Art like Marilyn Monroe. So that failed, and then I think they offered me a couple of people and it finally kind of ground to a halt. I mean, now I’d probably choose Anthony Joshua.
NC: I feel a little commission coming on…
PB: That would be great. That’d be wonderful.
NC: We’re thrilled to represent you properly in the collection now with the portrait of Michael Eavis and also the double portrait of the Waddingtons . The other thing that I wanted to ask you about – which comes out in the Michael Eavis portrait – is the importance of music in your work and also of musicians. I’m thinking not just of the super-famous example of the album cover you did, or other musicians like Ian Dury that you’ve depicted or indeed other album covers, like Paul Weller’s. But even in your amazing self-portrait in the Tate collection [Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961], you have a magazine with Elvis very prominent. Music looms large in your work.
PB: Yes. It’s mainly there because I was a fan: nearly all the musicians [in my work] I like very much.
NC: Do you listen to music when you’re working?
PB: Yeah. I play a lot of Beach Boys. I think they end up being my favourite. There’s a portrait of Brian Wilson, and I did a record cover for the Beach Boys. I’m a fan.
NC: There’s probably nothing left to say about the cover of Sgt. Pepper, you’re probably bored of it. But it is such an amazing work of art and such an amazing album cover. How do you feel about it now?
PB: I did it with Jann [Haworth] and when we separated it became a factor. Obviously, I’m excited when somebody writes, ‘This is the greatest record cover of all time.’ You’ve got to be pleased with that. But the mechanics of it are still uncomfortable. What actually happened was The Beatles were great friends of Robert Fraser, who was my gallerist, and they had a cover done by a design group called The Fool, who made a kind of psychedelic cover. Robert saw it and said, ‘You could do better than this. Why don’t you use one of my artists?’ He got the contract and Jann helped me do it. And did most of the work, the physical work. We weren’t commissioned jointly, but I felt she deserved to be credited.
NC: Moving from pop music to Pop Art. You’re perceived as being one of the pioneers of it, and I wanted to ask you how that feels. Do you still feel an affinity to Pop Art?
PB: I definitely feel an affinity to it. I know that David [Hockney] denies that he’s a Pop artist, and in a way he’s right, in the long run. [R.B.] Kitaj denied that he was a Pop artist, and again, perhaps he wasn’t. In America, you had Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, pioneering something that definitely was a lead-up to Pop Art. And they were a big influence on me.
NC: Like the targets?
PB: The targets, the Rauschenberg collages. In England in the mid-’50s, you had the Independent Group: Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi were instigators of Pop Art. Whereas I was sort of working-class, and I’d finished at the Royal College. So I think there were three sources of Pop Art: America, the Independent Group and me, independently.
‘I made a three-dimensional box before Andy Warhol did. Which Alan Jones had for years.’
NC: Thomas Crow makes this argument that Pop Art began in the UK. With you, with Paolozzi, with Richard Hamilton. I think what’s more interesting is the fact that on both sides of the Atlantic, different artists were investigating parallel themes.
PB: And both sides of America: East Coast and West Coast. But New York claimed it. With the enormous power of the Castelli Gallery, and his stable of artists, they just said, ‘We started it.’ For instance, I made a three-dimensional box before Andy [Warhol], did. Which Alan Jones had for years. It was a matchbox about that big.
NC: I think also what maybe distinguishes your work is this oscillation between something very radical and progressive and something more, I’m going to say classical, non-traditional classical. On the one hand, you’ve pioneered radical new vernaculars and styles, but there’s also this classical streak in your work going back to the Northern Renaissance. I think that’s quite unique.
PB: Well, all I can say is to agree with that. Certainly, early influences were Fra Angelico and Van Eyck. The drawings of Holbein were a big influence. Later on some of the American realists and the German realists like Christian Schad. He was intriguing because he did something odd with portraiture. They were very, very, highly real portraits. But with an oddness about them.
NC: Something uncanny. Almost too real.
PB: Yeah, absolutely. Almost embarrassingly real, but brilliant. And George Grosz I like very much. In a way, my sympathies gravitate towards the north. Obviously, great things came from the south like Picasso and Matisse, but this quirky interest picks up on the north.
NC: The other important aspect of your work I wanted to bring out is the role of literature and narrative: Lewis Carroll, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare.
PB: I certainly wanted to illustrate Alice, which I did. Under Milk Wood became an interest in the ’50s. I worked for 28 years on illustrations for it and ended up with almost 200. I’d like to take just the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, just Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and illustrate that. It’s written from a woman’s viewpoint and it’s highly erotic. My aim is to simply get inside Molly Bloom’s head, and illustrate what she’s doing. The whole chapter is one sentence, a stream of consciousness thinking about the day. I’ve always been intrigued by this concept of a day or a journey. Under Milk Wood starts with dawn and ends with dusk. Alice is a journey, maybe a dream, who knows? They won’t get finished, but I’m working on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. The other one is The Great Gatsby. I’ve made a sheaf of papers about four inches by three, so they’ll be tiny little watercolours.
NC: You must finish these!
PB: I’ve done a lot of work on Molly Bloom. I tend to work on them in kind of spasms.
NC: There’s humour in your work as well.
PB: Yeah. Humour some years ago was an uncomfortable element in art.
NC: I suppose, for some critics, if you don’t take yourself seriously, you’re not ‘serious’.
PB: Exactly. With the Michael Eavis, I went with Mary McCartney who took the photographs. We were standing in the field, where later that year there would be thousands of people, and there were just three cows. And Michael makes this gesture of just raising his arms in the air, like, ‘Isn’t everything wonderful!’ He was standing in front of the Pyramid Stage, which has held all those great musicians, and there was just one cow. And it was quiet.
NC: I was in this very room when I saw it for the first time. And then of course we unveiled it in Glastonbury. And it’s so lovely a year later for it to be on display at the gallery. It’s become one of our most loved works. People love it. There’s a joyfulness about it and a humour.
PB: That was the story that suggested it.
NC: For some artists, there’s a distinction between making something from life, face to face, versus from a photograph, but for you, even if you’re working directly with a sitter, it’s almost through photography.
PB: It’s incredibly intimate, working from a sitter, the rapport. One of the portraits I did was of Helen Mirren, when she was a young actress. And she arrived, looking amazingly sexy in a transparent blouse. And I think it frightened me. And from then on, I’ve never painted from life. I couldn’t deal with that rapport. I painted Kendo Nagasaki. And he came, he arrived in his Rolls-Royce, fully dressed as Nagasaki. He walked from the car to the front door, with the mask on and everything. So there’s a man called Peter Thornley, who is a businessman. And then he goes into some kind of mystical state and he becomes Kendo Nagasaki. When he’s Nagasaki he won’t talk to anybody and he’s clearly a different person. When he sat, I don’t think he blinked for three hours. And he just knew that I could stare as much as I wanted, because he was in this other state.
NC: When you look at your incredible body of work over so many decades, does it all make sense to you? Or are you surprised by how it developed?
PB: I’m surprised by the volume, because I do work. Every day I work. When I’m not working, I should be working. I love it. Making these collages, the obsessive cutting-out, has been such a joy.
‘I witnessed the Blitz. From Dartford you could see London on fire.’
NC: For younger artists, it feels that now is a difficult time because there are so many barriers to studying, even going to the Royal College, where you studied. Whether it’s financial or cultural, or maybe the sense that somehow the arts are not a viable place for people to live and work. Would you have any advice for young artists starting out or thinking about going to study?
PB: It is difficult compared with the opportunities I had. I first went to art school in 1945, and then did three years in a junior art department, where you went to the local technical school and carried on with your schooling, and half the time you went to the art school. Mum and Dad both worked. We always walked to school because we couldn’t afford the bus and stuff like that. I can’t imagine the difficulty now just finding the fees. And I had great teachers: Ruskin Spear, Robert Buhler, Johnny Minton, great artists. I was really lucky to get the training I had.
NC: It was an interesting time. Britain after the Second World War was going through this process of renewal and change.
PB: In 1945 I was 13, just come through a war. It must have affected me, or any child. To see V1s – the doodlebugs – come across. I was evacuated twice. I actually witnessed the Battle of Britain in Kent: look up and see it happening. And the Blitz: from Dartford you could see London on fire. When the war finished I went to art school. We were glad to be alive. It was exciting because everything was starting again. You suddenly had speedway, stockcar racing, wrestling. It was an amazing time.
NC: You come to London, it’s this very fertile period from the ’50s to the ’60s. And then you move to Bath and you’re involved with…
PB: … The Brotherhood of Ruralists. I think it was literally at the end of the ’60s. Start again. A lot of people moved away from the swinging ’60s years. Some went to the East Coast, some went to the West Country, Joe Tilson went west, Howard Hodgkin, Dick Smith. The Brotherhood of Ruralists was about something else – a kind of friendship of artists working in a similar way. And it became quite political, because people were so fed up with us. People hated the idea of this group of artists making the art they were making.
NC: It seems very timely now. I was lucky enough to work with Cy Twombly. And I remember him talking about deciding to move from New York to Rome, which, in a way is like moving from London to Bath, going from a very exciting metropolitan centre to something that’s more off the grid. And he said it gave him this freedom because Rauschenberg and Johns got stuck in New York and they just had to constantly make the same work, perform the same persona, repeat the same trick.
‘Humour some years ago was an uncomfortable element in art.’
PB: Particularly [Roy] Lichtenstein, who I think in a way was a Pop Artist by default. I think he was on the path to being an Abstract Expressionist and made a painting for his child. Lichtenstein took it in to show Castelli. Castelli was a kind of devil and he sold it, and clearly said: ‘Can you do some more?’ I always felt that Lichtenstein didn’t actually like comic books at all.
NC: Your work often has elements of abstraction. Some of the works you mentioned, there’ll be postcards collaged in, but otherwise they’re abstract.
PB: I’ve got this kind of parallel style, which is a very simple kind of abstraction. It is, fair enough, ripped off such a lot.
NC: The wonderful work you did about London a few years ago at the beginning of the pandemic [London Stands Together, 2020].
PB: A sort of thank-you.
NC: That was amazing. Thank you, that was so interesting.
Peter Blake’s portrait of Michael Eavis is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in The National Lottery Heritage Fund Gallery.
Frieze Masters Talks provides a platform for leading artists, writers, museum curators and directors to explore the connections between historical art and contemporary practice. This year’s programme has been curated in collaboration with dunhill, Official Partner of Frieze Masters Talks 2023. Find out more at frieze.com
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Main image: Peter Blake, 2021 seated in his exhibition ‘Time Traveller’ at Waddington Custot. Image courtesy Waddington Custot