Looking like a young rebel of the 1960’s with his denim suit covered in badges (one of which appears to be of Elvis Presley) and holding a leaflet also with Elvis, Peter Blake’s “Self-Portrait with Badges” in Tate Britain is an appetiser to his exhibition “Peter Blake: Portraits and People”, at the Waddington Custot Galleries, surprisingly the first exhibition to focus on Blake’s interest in portraiture.
Born in 1932, Blake became one of the best known British pop artists in the 1950’s with works that often incorporated images from advertisements, entertainment and wrestlers of the era. His self-portrait at the Tate won the John Moores junior award in 1961, and his reputation in the pop world was reinforced by his artwork for pop record sleeves, so that every teenager in the country probably possessed a work by Peter Blake.
At the rear of the exhibition, arranged like a religious shrine, Elvis comes to life through Blake’s arrangements from his extensive collections of memorabilia which are also reflected in the exhibition “Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector”, on show at the Barbican last year and is now at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in East Anglia, and which lifts the veil on his collections including enamel signs, masks, toys, dolls, Victorian collage, folk art, pop ephemera, circus and show-business memorabilia, elephant figurines and, of course, badges. Here the triptych is in three parts, setting Elvis in a new world with other images of portraits, landscapes and still lives.
Peter Blake himself has chosen the works for the exhibition. Portraits of friends including Leslie Waddington, who died last year, Christopher Frayling, Helen Mirren and Paul Smith sit alongside series of portraits of wrestlers (male and female) boxers, tattooed men and women and circus acts, areas of interest which have continued through his career.
Finally, collecting and art merge with his two sculptural works from 2014 – “Family” and “Crowd” using cigar boxes, found objects and wood.
An exhibition which should have been held in one of the Tate’s, it reveals Blake’s fascination with people from all walks of life (even the Queen), their interests and what makes them tick and shows just what a talented and versatile artist he is.