The Eyes of a Modern Master: ‘Peter Blake: Portraits and People’ Explores Over Half a Century of British Culture

Sir Peter Blake explores satire, fandom and alluring beauty in his ‘Portraits and People’ currently exhibiting at the Waddington Custot Galleries. Throughout these works, Blake captures every walk of life that has roamed the city streets over the last 50 years. Though time has passed and our world continuously evolves, Blake has stayed true to his modern aesthetic. As one of Britain’s first pop artists, his style is truly distinguishable – this is what marks his works as powerful and completely unique to the Pop movement.

However, when I say Pop Art, I am not referring to brash commercialism and the use of bold, graphic colours but rather an art that references nostalgia: the sentimental, not the superficial. Blake is a Pop Artist that portrays the happenings of society and culture, but one cannot misidentify his distinctive artistic form.

The exhibition consists of portraits from the 1960s to the present day, where many works have been exhibited previously and some new to the walls of a gallery and speculation of the crowd. As one of the artist’s first exhibitions to focus on portraiture, the amalgamation of personalities and eccentricities on show are reflective of Blake’s infatuation with fandom but also the everyday. Blake has always been intrigued by those who make up our society, creating works inspired by what he has seen and perceived over the years – from iconic works such as the shrine to Elvis, to the more recent Aquarium and the continuous Wrestlers series that has fascinated Blake since childhood. The artist states,

‘I loved it immediately. I loved the theatre, the fantasy and the idea of good versus evil.’ 

I had never thought about wrestling like this before but having seen Blake’s depiction of the brave, enthralling figures enabled me to see differently, an alternative perspective to what one may have originally preconceived.

Another aspect that caught my eye at the exhibition, is how the Tattoo series has been displayed, revealing an element of the artist’s quirkiness. Naturally, one expects works to be numbered numerically, however, this is not essential for Blake. Instead, this series is numbered randomly. At first it did look baffling to the eye, simply because it is not what you are expecting. On reflection, perhaps this quirky twist is purposeful, reflective of how our expectations are not always met, or how society is not always what we expect – potentially deconstructing our perceptions of tattooed people. They are individuals, not a category, nor a number.

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Whilst admiring this beautiful display of powerful portraits I was able to meet the man himself. When face-to-face, his manner is very unassuming, yet spirited. Blake’s aesthetic as an artist has not altered and perhaps this is because he is still the same person that began to discover his artistic self sixty years ago. Blake’s own success and fandom has not altered his artistic vision, only given us more incredible works to marvel at.

‘Peter Blake: Portraits and People’ is exhibiting at the Waddington Custot Galleries, Mayfair until 30th January 2016.

Lily Bennett