Circuses and rock'n'roll: CultureCritic talks to Sir Peter Blake...
Peter Blake, Self-Portrait With Badges, 1961 (detail)
Can you introduce us to your current exhibitions, and how it feels to look back on such a vast body of work?
With me coming up to my 80th, there's a lot of interest. The exhibition at Pallant House is work that relates to music, and there's the exhibition here at the Albert Hall and another at the Mall Galleries.
How important have your album covers been in informing your practice overall?
Probably not as important as you might think. They have happened along the way, with other graphic works, but there are ones that have happened to become iconic and it's kind of gotten out of proportion a little bit. They've been fun to do, but no more than doing a Sunday Times cover or illustrating a book or something.
What have you been playing in your studio recently?
I play lots of modern jazz, and I play Dionne Warwick, Jeff Baker and yesterday I actually played Hot Chocolate. I guess it's quite a diverse area.
CCA Art Bus: 'a mobile work of art' designed by Blake
What is your Art Bus exactly?
About two years ago, there were two or three shows that Chrissy [Peter's wife] and I went to. It felt like we were on the road, like rock'n'rollers. Chrissy joked that it would have been nice to have arrived on a tour bus. About a month later, Lance who runs CCA Galleries rang and said ‘I've bought the bus'. We were a bit non-plussed. He said, ‘you said you wanted one'. He had bought a Liverpool double-decker. The top is a gallery and the bottom a kind of reception area. It goes all over the place: into schools and clubs and festivals. [Click here to see where it's going next].
It makes art accessible in a sense, which leads us to pop culture in your work. Were there any figures in particular that sparked that obsession?
There's a whole background to it, but really it is a class thing, a working class thing. When I was a kid these were my interests - the fairgrounds, circuses, rock'n'roll. So, at a certain point in making art, when I had to make a decision about what to do, I thought, ‘be autobiographical'. Well, It wasn't that conscious. The first picture was of my brother wearing badges on an ABC Minors jacket from a Saturday morning cinema club and from that the work became very autobiographical and about popular culture, and that's what became Pop art. And it's still there. I still go to circuses when I can, and concerts.
Peter Blake, Got a girl, 1960-61. Pallant House Gallery Wilson Loan (2006) © the artist/ DACS 2012
You're renowned for your collecting. Do you have a particular collection that you can't help adding to?
I would have said yes but, since curating the shows [at the Museum of Everything] I have pretty much stopped, which is strange. I suppose, after the Museum of Everything and then the show in Bath, A Museum for Myself, which related my collections to my work, in a way it's complete. One of the biggest collections was one of small elephants. Now it would have to be a really extraordinary elephant for me to buy it.
Chrissy: It's sad isn't it! He still is [collecting] though...
No I think I really have, I mean certainly with books, we've got thousands of them. If there was a special book then I would still buy it but I really have cut back.
Pop art changed the face of contemporary art at the time. Does it still feel hugely important to you or do you feel you've gained some distance?
I think as a movement, in italics, Pop art was only for a very short period, from '59 to '64, though things were happening before then with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Cubism was set within a time lock, so was Pop art. But I still have the same attitude towards it, and refer back to it.
It pretty much died away, and then Marco Livingstone put on the big Pop show at the RA [Pop Art: An International Perspective, 1991] and that revived an interest. I very consciously had a show in Tokyo called Déjà vu where I recreated a Pop art show, but that at the time was a really weird thing to do. You know, I do get back into it. Some of the prints refer to Pop art more and I suppose it's still one of the reasons I paint, so it's still there.
Peter Blake, EL, 1961, at Peter Blake: Pop Music. Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester © the artist/ DACS 2012
The YBAs were part of a very influential, more recent movement and you've always given them support. Do you feel like they're unfairly represented?
It's finding a balance. I was very supportive of Tracey [Emin] and still am, but I think she pushed the publicity a bit, and became too... not well known, but too high profile. I suspect she's very
deliberately calmed it down, and that's probably good. With Damien [Hirst], the criticism has always been that he's greedy and I've tried to explain that it's not that he wants wealth, but that the work is about wealth; he's commenting on it. The fact he made the diamond skull simply because he could afford to, and said, ‘look this is worth 50 million' or whatever. His work is really about the state of wealth. So I would still support all of them, I would never turn on them.
Perhaps the characters became bigger than the work itself?
That's exactly it, that's what happens. I suppose the big stars were Damien and Tracey and they probably feel themselves it's time to step back a bit. Damien's stopped drinking and Tracey's gone very quiet the last six months for some reason.
And many of that group seem to be upping sticks to the countryside...
Everybody always does that. My generation did it in the 60s, a lot of us moved to the West Country. I think it's a natural progression. Abigail Lane moved to East Anglia, and Sarah Lucas. Tracey's got a place in France and Damien's got a place in Devon. Often they do come back.
Have you been to see either of the Emin or Hirst retrospectives recently?
We went to Damien's private view and enjoyed it very much. I had seen pretty much all of it when it was first shown so there were no big surprises. We haven't been to [the Tracey Emin show in] Margate yet but we've been to other shows there. There was a brilliant show that they opened with that had a couple of my pictures in, so we went to that and I'll try to go. It's one of my favourite places, Margate.
Inside the CCA Art Bus
Are there any emerging artists currently that you're a fan of?
Our daughter, Rose. The painting world has reached a point where I'm very conscious of getting older, and [having] work to do and there's very little time. There are so many shows I've missed, so I'm not very conscious of very young artists coming through, but I know there are a lot of them.
A few years ago you described your current period of work as ‘an encore'. Does that keep you passionate?
There were three statements at that time. One was hypothetical, conceptual - more that I was retiring from the battle. The concept of the encore was that, having retired, you could take things in isolation and have a show that didn't necessarily have to fit in with anything else - a small show of drawing or you could sing a song, anything really. That concept still exists.
At the moment I'm working on a show for Waddington. I wanted it to be a miniature retrospective of drawing, watercolours and a group of collages. Then Leslie [Waddington] came with a new gallery director, who was incredibly enthusiastic. There was this new excitement. There's a big picture that they wanted me to show, so I've gone back to work on that and a lot of new sculptures. It's now called Rock, Paper Scissors, like the children's game. The paper is the watercolours or drawings and works on paper, scissors is the ten new collages and rock will be some new sculptures, some big as well as some earlier ones. So it's very exciting.
Sir Peter Blake outside the Art Bus
Are you still in the studio most days?
I try and work everyday, but I guess it's a matter of physical stuff now. I need two knee replacements and am preparing to have them done. It is just being older. I've had to slow up a little. I went in today absolutely desperate to work and wanting to work but I sat down and dozed off and now we're here.
Chrissy: [laughing] You dozed off!
[laughing] Yes. Anyway, the picture I'm working on... at some point in the 80s I did a series of little paintings called A Study for Once Upon a Time... there were kittens, ducklings, robins and children. On their own, they would be overly sentimental. I've always said that's a good reason to paint, but these were a little bit too sentimental.
Then I had the show at Liverpool, and decided that everything that I had been working on would be in an anteroom, so you would go out of a door that you thought was the exit and instead there was a recreation of my studio with all these unfinished things and no explanation.
Amongst these was a big painting; it must be 10ft by 8ft, part of a mural that I had done for a Shakespeare exhibition in the 60s. I decided I would make that Once Upon a Time. I painted two little girls in and a book opening - I think it's to do with Jack and the Beanstalk - and then it was going to be full of magical things. I'm going to work on it through to November and see where I get, but I am painting quite loosely. Yesterday I changed the earl of Essex into Robin Hood, but very broadly.
And Robin Hood is one of your recurring characters. Why do these figures keep popping up?
They're like a repertory company; they're my cast. There's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, certainly Robin Hood and Tarzan occasionally. They just keep coming back like a song, I'm still interested in them. In one of the Marcel Duchamp World Tour pictures, there's now a Robin Hood. That's the one I'm working on and, like I said, he reappeared yesterday with Friar Tuck and Little John. They're heroes I suppose.
How does this show the Royal Albert Hall differ from the Pallant House show?
This is a selection from CCA from more or less within a certain period.
There seems to be something for everyone, but the collages really stood out for me.
Oh good, they always look quite cheerful I think.
So finally, as your birthday is just around the corner, we were wondering what your dream present would be?
Chrissy's organising it. How much can you say?
Chrissy: It's a complete secret. He knows there's a party next Friday...
So it's a secret, but my last one was pretty good.
Chrissy: Yes, at the Dover Street Art Club before it suddenly revamped into this new wonderful venue, but that was pretty cool. There were people that Pete was at art college with years ago and people you hadn't seen for years and years.
And Chrissy said ‘come down and see the cake', and then I heard sound behind me and the curtains went back and it was the Blockheads playing ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll'. I'd seen one or two of them there and thought it was nice of them to have come but it never occurred to me that they were going to play.
Well hopefully this year will top it.
Chrissy: [laughing] with difficulty!
Win tickets to Peter Blake: Pop Music at Pallant House here.
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