Peter Blake's tuneful art
In celebration of the 80th birthday of Sir Peter Blake (June 25th), Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery is launching a major music-themed exhibition this month that reveals why this Englishman is one of the country’s best-known and much-loved pop art pioneers.
Entitled Peter Blake and Pop Music, the show explores his relationship with music and musicians since the 1950s, a synergy that has resulted in many iconic images, with the most famous of all being the colourful album cover for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
A curious fact, to take a slight aside, is that he was paid £200 for the commission, which even back then was an affront. To add further misery, from a purely financial point of view, his agent at the time signed away copyright and royalties of a now universally recognisable image.
Needless to say, taking centre stage will be another Beatles/Blake quasi-collaboration. His famous portrait of the Fab Four was painted as if it were an album cover, a superb homage to both pop music and pop art. The simplicity of the concept is ingenious, loaded with furtive meaning, emblematic of much of his work.
Also making a loud noise at the show is Self-Portrait with Badges (1961), a painting which reduces the artist to a passively passionate Elvis Presley fan; and Girls and their Hero (1959-62), this time contrasting the dynamism of the “King of Rock Roll” with the fervour of female fans, overawed by their love of the charismatic musician.
Blake’s love affair with music, especially on the other side of the Atlantic in the US, started early on in life when he came across his dad’s record collection, which was laden with swing hits. As a teenager, many evenings at the Dartford Rhythm Club allowed him to explore other sounds, further developing his passion for resonant music.
As such, throughout the artist’s career, music has been, in so many ways, at the very forefront of what drives and inspires him. Other musicians that he has worked with have included, among many others, Britpop provocateurs Oasis, for whom he designed the cover of their 2006 greatest hits album Stop the Clocks; the brilliant The Who on their ninth studio album Face Dances; and mod-legend Paul Weller on his third record Stanley Road.
His landmark age aside, it’s a fitting time for the exhibition to be launched, as Blake had, surprisingly, run into financial difficulties a few years ago, for reasons he puts down as being tax-related.
Speaking to the Radio Times last month, he revealed that so bad was his situation that bailiffs had turned up to his home and all his credit cards were refused: “Now I’ve reached the happy position that, mainly through printmaking, I’m not likely to be broke again. I earn the right amount for someone of my age and situation in the art world.”
Fittingly, he has been involved in the London 2012 Olympic Games celebrations, reinventing the classic red city phone box, emblazoning one of them with a mere 400,000 Swarovski crystals. This, he says, commemorates the Britishness of 2012. Blake certainly can claim a stake to knowing what it means to be British. The man has helped imagine it and forever it will be emblazoned in the nation’s cultural memory.
Peter Blake and Pop Music runs from June 23rd until October 27th.