First published in the Warwick History of Art Society website, 07/06/2020
Hung on the walls of Tate Britain lies a rather despondent self-portrait. The subject of this painting, Sir Peter Blake, is an English artist who was at the forefront of the ‘Pop art’ movement. He is most well-known for his designs for a Beatles’ album cover and for the Live Aid and Band Aid concert posters. In this current period of imposed social distancing and separation, Blake’s Self-portrait with badges (1962) is a stark reminder of the power of commercialism, consumerism and the banalities of daily life, rooted in 1960s capitalist mass production and common visual culture. This is particularly pertinent at a time when we have come to treasure people, places and memories that are close and meaningful to us even more than previously.
Painted using oils on a life-size board panel, Blake depicts himself in a solitary manner in the centre of the scene in what seems to be the backyard of a garden. Blake’s height dominates most of the vertical length of the panel, so the spectator only manages to get a glimpse into the sky above and trees beyond him over the wooden fence. Blake has an unwavering gaze towards the spectator. His posture is unperturbed and unhurried, with his left hand dug into his jacket pocket, his right hand holding a magazine entitled ‘ELVIS’ and an accompanying monochromatic image of a biracial couple. His stance faintly echoes that of Gainsborough’s ‘The Blue Boy’ (1779).
The strikingly ‘ordinary’ aesthetic of this self-portrait is one of a dishevelled man who is a product of his time. This is exemplified by the 1960s-style clothing Blake has depicted himself wearing, as well as the excessive number of badges pinned onto his denim jacket. The environment in which Blake is situated has been poorly maintained: a wooden fence panel in the far-left background has broken off and the other panels do not match in width or colour. His loose, quasi-Expressionist mark-making produces a wind-like effect of the weather and creates dynamic energy amongst the long grass and tall trees that surround the very motionless, static figure. Moreover, Blake’s deployment of a muted, limited palette heightens the idea of the monotony and repetitiveness of everyday life – a key motif central to the work of Pop artists, most notably embodied in the oeuvre of Andy Warhol.
Although the Pop art movement originated in the UK, it soon rose to popularity in the USA with its celebration of Western visual media and lifestyle. Blake’s self-portrait clearly integrates both American and British pop culture. The common tricolour theme prevalent in Blake’s outfit is an immediate reminder of the American and British national flags (the American crest can be seen on the right pocket of the Levi denim jacket where it has been sewn).
Blake’s outfit requires thorough interrogation as it captures a sense of the gimmicky, expendable and kitsch culture of Western consumerism. The baseball boots and Levi denim that he wears are iconic items of clothing and materials in American culture. Post-war, denim in Britain was not widely available and or common in mainstream media and fashion culture at the time. In America, however, denim was a material worn daily by the younger generation and it, therefore, makes Blake seem younger than he actually (as a man aged about 30 at the time). In continental Europe, there was a surplus of denim in the post-war decades, which may perhaps have been the source of Blake’s outfit.
Denim carried an intensely personal aspect for Blake. During his younger years, when completing an art scholarship in southern France, he picked up a denim jacket at some point on his journey. The denim-clad sentimentality underlying Blake’s self-portrait somehow evokes nostalgic images of children standing in their gardens, being photographed by proud parents before their first day of school.
Blake’s denim jacket has an immediately noticeable, almost childlike collection of badges pinned onto it. Thus, the viewer’s attention is first drawn to Blake’s clothing rather than to his blank facial expression. Like the painting as a whole, the badges are oddly one-dimensional. The badges themselves also accentuate the mass consumerism of Western society and act as iconic emblems, whilst also subliminally taking the side of the underdog. For instance, the campaign badge Blake wears depicts the (thrice) unsuccessful American Democrat candidate, Adlai Stevenson. Likewise, the badge on the left breast of Blake’s jacket shows the Pepsi logo. As Pepsi was not the leading brand but merely America’s second most favoured drinks brand (after Coca-Cola), the Pepsi image again represents a satirical commentary upon America’s obsessive interest in ‘winners’ rather than ‘losers’.
Peter Blake portrays a sense of fame and glamour by including a magazine captioned ‘Elvis’. At his prime, Elvis collaborated with the Levi brand to make their own ‘Elvis Presley style’ that included black denim jeans, yet Elvis only rarely wore denim at his live concerts. Blake ironically juxtaposes Elvis’ high-profile celebrity with Blake’s far less prominent status as an emerging, but a relatively unknown, artist. Does this self-portrait sub-consciously signal Blake taking a metaphorical pledge of cultural allegiance to the USA?
The painting contains hints of influences from well-known historical portraits. This is evident in Blake’s outdoor setting, stance and choice of colour palette. Whilst, on the one hand, Blake includes a wide range of motifs that associate him with pop culture and contemporary society, on the other hand, he seems rather detached. The overall composition is evocative of Watteau’s 18th-century painting of ‘Pierrot’, a solitary and sad clown whose pose Blake mimics here, with hints of Gainsborough’s style.
In our current uncertain and challenging times, this painting may help us to re-assess the relationship between art and our everyday life, just as it did in the 1960s when it was painted. The current closure of art institutions, museums and galleries have created a sense of cultural deficit in our society. Blake’s memorable self-portrait serves as a powerful reminder of the force, and true purpose, of art in our lives.