Brian Webb & Peyton Skipworth, Peter Blake Design, Antique Collector's Club, New York, 2010, p29, illus colour, dated mid-50s
This untitled collage dates from the period soon after Peter Blake graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1956. Between 1955 and 1958, Blake had made a series of paintings of circus women, six of which were exhibited at the I.C.A., London in 1958. These paintings were made on tall, irregular pieces of board, and depicted strong female characters such as Loelia, World's Most Tatooed Lady, 1955 and Siriol She-Devil of Naked Madness, 1957. Here is a similarly quirky female figure, who shares the direct gaze and bubbly hairstyle of the early circus girls, presented within a similar extended vertical format.
This collage was submitted for publication in Vogue but, in fact, was never used in the magazine. Here a 'modern girl' is thinking of the latest fashions and perhaps romance, as she weighs up two competing suitors - one a Victorian gentleman, the other Marlon Brando. The other collaged images are a humorous mixture of Victoriana and a single tiny image of Marilyn Monroe. Female subjects and romance are regular themes for Blake around this time. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he developed his work about 'romance' in the large-scale collages Couples, 1959 (a grid of Victorian and contemporary postcards, pinned on a noticeboard) and Love Wall, 1961 (an array of magazine images, collaged onto a construction of doors, walls and window frames); his representations of women included celebrity portraits and his girlie Pin Ups series.
Marilyn is a recurring figure in Blake's work. Richard Hamilton had included a blown-up magazine image of Monroe in the 1956 Whitechapel exhibition This is Tomorrow, but Blake's use of Marilyn prefigures Andy Warhol, who only adopted her as a subject after her death in 1962. Marilyn first appears in Blake's painting On the Balcony, 1955-7, painted onto a man's tie; soon after her photographic image appears in large scale collage works such as Locker and Girlie Door, both 1959. Blake uses her affectionately, he is a fan, and she makes many future appearances, for example on the cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band in 1967. The late 1950s was a time when 'celebrity culture' was still a relatively new (and unnamed) phenomenon. Blake identified this new mood, understanding that film stars were now the object of our collective adoration, as exotic and glamorous as the circus performers and wrestlers he loved to watch.
Soon after college in 1956-7, Blake travelled extensively in Europe on a Leverhulme Research Award and during his time away he often used pen and ink to draw in sketchbooks. Here, Blake uses the graphic qualities of pen and ink to great effect, adding exquisite detail to the girl's hair and the shadow on her neck. The cartoon-style think bubbles are an instantly recognisable graphic device, which bring order to the collaged elements. Blake clearly enjoyed this style of drawing, in 1960 he drew a complete cartoon strip which was printed in the Royal College of Art's Ark magazine. This cartoon was also on the subject of love, faithfully reproducing the style and sentiment of a teenage comic book romance. Blake studied Graphic Design at Gravesend School of Art prior to attending the Royal College and throughout his career he has incorporated a strong sense of design into his art. In Blake's oeuvre it is not always easy (or necessary) to distinguish between his fine art and commissioned work, as he always brings so much of himself to his graphic projects. In the years immediately after college, Blake made a pragmatic decision to pursue both teaching and graphic design work alongside painting and has continued to work on record covers, magazine and book covers well after it became financially necessary.
Blake's European trip was an opportunity to collect new supplies of collage material - tickets, postcards, fly posters, anything that might provide inspiration for his art. He first became interested in collage in his final year at the Royal College, encouraged by the artist Richard Smith, and friend Jasia Reichardt, who had family ties to the German collagists Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters. At first, his collages were abstract, but he soon recognised the potential of using figurative images, bringing the contemporary material he had meticulously painted in On the Balcony directly into his work. In 1955, he made his first collaged box (moving his work into three dimensions for the first time) and from that point on became an obsessive collector of printed materials, and a wide range of ephemera, which have informed his work ever since.
Blake's use of nostalgic Victorian engravings and postcards is highly distinctive and he often uses them as an amusing counterpoint to contemporary images such as these of Monroe and Brando. He explains:
'For me pop art is rooted in nostalgia: the nostalgia of old popular things. And although I'm also continually trying to establish a new pop art, one which stems directly from our own time, I'm always looking back at the sources of the idiom and trying to find the technical forms that will best capture the authentic feel of folk pop'[i]
Blake's juxtaposition of the distant past (Victoriana), with the contemporary, reflected his everyday cultural experience. In a postmodern, media age, in any one day, we are exposed to a vast array of cultures, times and places. This can lead us to feel both overly familiar with a past we do not actually remember and at the same time nostalgic for things which are from our own time and which are still here to be enjoyed. Blake recognises and taps into that feeling. Here it is a joke, the girl is thinking of 'fashion' but the fashions are out of date and no longer relevant to a modern girl. His ironic inclusion of the past, makes us see the present with fresh eyes.
[i] Peter Blake and Mervyn Levy, 'Peter Blake, Pop art for admass', Studio International, vol.166, no.847, November 1963, p184