‘the most original of these young painters is Peter Blake. He is so unmistakably and unshakably himself that his pictures do not look like anything else that has ever been called a work of art … Most of his pictures are painted on bits of scrapped planking, they usually depict circus people in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Victorian posters, and the painted titles are part of the image… The painted image is partly scrubbed out, as if to give it the look of an ancient panel, and then bits of the clothing are "restored" with coloured tin-foil. The clash between paint and tin-foil recreates in a remarkable way the noise, the garish lights and the tawdry finery.’ (Architectural Review, April 1958, review of Five Painters at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, featuring the present work)
Unseen in public for well over half a century Peter Blake’s Strong Man, 1 comes from a small group of works created by the artist whilst still in his early 20s, fresh from studying at London’s Royal College of Art. This small handful of proto-Pop paintings that Blake produced in the mid- to late-1950s form the nucleus of some of the most important and lasting influences over the artist’s later work. In works such as Strong Man, 1, as well as Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady (1955, Private Collection) and Siriol, She-Devil of Naked Madness (1957, Private Collection) the artist explored his fascination with characters that populated the fringes of society, as well as his love of nostalgia. As Blake later commented; ‘I paint about the life I knew. It isn’t Victoriana, it’s nostalgia, or rather a sentimentality, for my childhood, but its also a feeling for what’s going on now – an emotion’ (Peter Blake quoted in Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Howard Hodgkin: Paintings from the 60s and 70s, exh. cat., Waddington Galleries, London, 1995, p.8).
The works that Blake produced during this period, executed on found and discarded wooden boards, become objects – relic-like – worked and scarred by the hand of the artist and the imagined passing of time. The paint surface is rubbed and blistered, taking on an antique appearance, and reference some fading memory of childhood experiences. With the application of collaged elements to the strong man’s neck chain and belt, and the bold, circus-style typography the work harks back to memories of a world which by the 1950s had all but disappeared. This sense of ‘Englishness’ is clearly something that fascinated the artist and the most popular pastime of the circus, in all its faded glory, in particular. As a student at the Royal College, each Christmas between 1953 and 1956 Blake was allowed backstage at Bertram Mill’s circus at London’s Olympia to observe the performers, once finding himself sketching alongside the grand dame of the British art scene, Laura Knight, who was also a frequent visitor to the circus. He later recalled ‘It was also around that time I painted those first images of tattooed ladies and strong men’ (Peter Blake, Port, 4th December 2014, unpaginated). Blake was to be inspired not only by the subjects he studied there, but also the broader visual style of the circus, with bright, bold lettering that was to appear in many of his works from the period.
Included in one of the artist’s first public exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1958, Strong Man, 1 was acquired by a young art student living in London at the time – purchased as the very best of the contemporary British art scene. And today, sixty years on, the work is still as fresh and immediate as it must have appeared back then. A painting full of wit, which holds a key place in the work of one of Britain’s greatest living painters.
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