Sir Peter Blake
Sir Peter Blake doesn’t believe that he owns the title “The Godfather of British Pop Art” alone – he shares it with fellow Beatles album-linked artist Richard Hamilton. Despite his success, this iconic artist, who will forever be linked with Fab Four mythology, and who’s turning 80 next year, remains a modest, down to earth man who’s never forgotten his humble origins, which saw him begin his artistic career by accident. Towards the end of World War Two, at the age of 14, he was asked at a technical school interview if he’d be interested to “pop round the corner” to take the entrance drawing examination at the Royal College of Art. Blake agreed to it, and the rest is pop history. “The opportunity was presented to me in a very unexpected way,” he tells Time Out over the phone from his London studio. “I probably would’ve got into the trade field like my electrician father had they not asked me to try out for art school. It was complete chance. I was certainly no child prodigy.”
Blake is famous for his renditions of pin-up girls, wrestlers and cultural pop icons. He attributes his social class as being a large factor in his choices of subject matter, saying: “I used to go watch wrestling matches with my mother as a child. It’s just part of being working class really.” Indeed, much of Blake’s artworks reflect an almost autobiographical theme, especially those of his earliest collections. The artist’s early paintings as a teenager were of young school boys in uniform and badges, which are symbolic of his earlier childhood. And although admitting to never having set foot in a strip club as a boy, the artist attributes his early exposure to abundant pinups girl images as the reason behind his principal theme.
When asked if he thinks the pastiche commonly seen in pop art has become tired in this age, seeing how everything is stitched together for quick and mass consumption nowadays, Blake speaks frankly of his belief that the movement itself should’ve stopped at its peak of popularity, in the 1960s. “Many American pop artists couldn’t move away from it. That was their ring and they were making a lot of money from it.” The artist recalls how Roy Lichtenstein, who originally started off as an abstract expressionist, didn’t particularly enjoy comics. In fact, he painted his first rendition of the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man as a gift for his young son; when a buyer saw Lichtenstein’s painting, it was sold right away and Lichtenstein was requested to paint more. “So in a way, most of the American pop artists were stuck with their subject matter,” says Blake.
The concept of mass producing images, however, is not something Blake deems as negative. He admits to having always been a fan of populism, and was inspired to use the print medium due to its convenience and reasonable pricing. He is, however, not strictly limited to his title as “Godfather of British Pop Art” – Blake has evolved since the days of the pop art frenzy in the 1950s. The artist today uses practical, affordable materials and combines them with modern technology to produce unique, individualistic pieces of art. “With today’s technology, the actual speed and convenience is very exciting,” he says. “I can come in with a pocketful of things such as postcards, scan it, and make something. There is this sort of populist ideal to it.”
In his coming retrospective exhibition in Hong Kong, the artist will be showcasing both iconic and recent works in his 60-year career, including a new variation of his Butterfly Man series, a set of computer generated images based on postcards of the old Hong Kong. When asked about the butterfly motif he shared with his younger peer Damien Hirst, Blake is unreserved in acknowledging his source of inspiration. “I appropriated it from him. He did the butterflies before I did,” says Blake, who has even paid homage to Hirst at an exhibition several months ago. “If it had been reversed, I wouldn’t have minded it. But it wasn’t – I did the appropriation.” Blake’s generosity, however, doesn’t extend nearly to a certain rock combo band called The Beatles.
While his cover design for the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains one of the most iconic images in music history, the veteran artist believes that his contribution has sometimes been underappreciated. “I still feel that the whole thing was unfair. The cover is just as important as the music – it’s an integral part, and should be rewarded [as such]. The Beatles have never really been aware of that, or they’ve consciously decided to not do it.” And does Blake ever get sick of being asked about The Beatles? “I do, yeah,” he bluntly adds.
Interview: Fiona Ng; additional reporting: Steven Hsieh
Sir Peter Blake's exhibition, New Territory, is at The Space from May 27-June 17.