Seneca said that all art is an imitation of nature. But he did say that over 2,000 years ago. Since then artists have progressed from trying to capture the effect of light on water to surrealist daubings and encasing dead sharks in formaldehyde. Like music, which is a repetition of the same notes in different formations, art has been copied, rehashed, mimicked, recycled and borrowed infinitely.
This is something that many artists find difficult to stomach. After all, they had the idea first, didn’t they? Not so Sir Peter Blake, the 78-year-old collage artist and collector of curiosities, often billed as the father of British Pop Art, who’s latest exhibition pays tribute to the artists he most wishes to imitate.
Homage 10 x 5, which opens at the Waddington Galleries in London’s Cork Street today, is an exhibition of 50 new works by Blake. He chose the ten artists “that emerged at the top of my inspiration list” and created five works either in the style of or taking cues from each artist. The shortlist includes some predictable names: Kurt Schwitters, Henri Matisse and Jack Pierson. But it also includes surprises, like the father of the YBA movement Damien Hirst.
“No artist is without influence. I don’t think you could look at anybody’s work and not find a link with somebody else’s. All art crosses over. Someone once described it as being like voices across the water; an echo is picked up and you might not even know it. Very rarely is art somebody’s pure invention,” Blake told independent.co.uk.
The motivation behind the exhibition was to provide “a nod of appreciation” and “a way of saying thank you” to artists whose work he enjoys. It began when coveting a painting by Jack Pierson but not, then, being in a position to buy one, Blake called Pierson’s art dealer and asked him to inquire if it was ok to “appropriate” his style for a series of paintings. Pierson replied to say he very much liked Blake’s work and would be happy to let him do so, later describing Blake’s creations as “spooky” in their accuracy.
Blake, who has an extensive collection of Victorian nick knacks, curiosities and memorabilia, hoards strange objects and bric-a-brac like a magpie. He co-curated the Museum of Everything exhibition currently in London. Among the weird and wonderful plateaus on display is the Potter's Museum of Curiosity - an extensive collection of taxidermy begun in 1861 by Walter Potter and salvaged by Blake. There are huge parallels between the new work Blake has produced and the idea of collecting detritus; you could even say that the medium he works in, for many of the pieces, is found objects. His homage to Mark Dion, the Museum of Black & White, a series of small toys and ornaments like those you might find in a seaside antique shop, is a striking example of this.
Collecting objects and collecting artists are rather similar things in Blake’s mind. He says collage is in itself is a way of collecting other people’s work and putting it together in a different way - essentially what he decided to do for the exhibition. “I think what’s really interesting is that both the Museum of Everything and the Waddington shows are running concurrently. There are a lot of pieces in the Waddington show that could easily have been displayed as objects in their own right as part of a collection of something – especially some of the paper bits – but I decided to use them as art,” he says.
There is an interesting synergy that some of the living artists on Blake’s list have almost certainly themselves been influenced by Blake. Pierson freely admitted to having been. Hirst counts Blake as an influence too. But when asked who else may have borrowed from him, Blake is endearingly coy: “I don’t think it’s for me to be the person that says it. It’s possible that other artists have picked up on some of my work.”
Blake says it is important to come out into the open about the fact that very little art is “pure invention” as he describes it. “It’s really about saying ‘Look this has influenced me’ and ‘Thank you very much,’” he says. He credits Kurk Schwitters with inventing the highly original collage style he adopted and ran away with during his career: “When Schwitters made the first collage by literally picking up a piece of rubbish, a sweet wrapper, a bus ticket and a piece of wood, that was pure invention.”
Hirst is a bit of an anomaly on Blake’s list of inspirations. “Damien wasn’t initially on the shortlist. I like his work very much but he might not have been included in the ten except for the coincidence that I was making a series anyway which included butterflies. Then Paul Stolper, the gallery owner, said to me ‘Don’t you think you’re treading on Damien’s toes a little bit?’ And I thought about it and realised that anyone who is using butterflies at this point is probably borrowing from him a little. So I thought rather than not do the work I’ll add him to the homage list.”
Blake has been turning his hand to the art of assemblage, among other things, for more than five decades. The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record sleeve is his most iconic work. Having announced his retirement aged 65, nearly ten years on Blake views his continuing prolificacy as a series of encores to the “grand finale” which was a retrospective at the National Gallery. Blake is philosophical about getting older, but his artistic zeal is undiminished:
“Having decided aged 75 that I was in my late period, I think I’m now looking to the future. In eighteen months I’ll turn 80. People often have shows aged 80 – Picasso at 80, Matisse at 80 etc- so I’m thinking of possible exhibitions. If 75 is my late period then I think at 80 I’ll be in my swan song. It’s a bit macabre, but things are so exciting at the moment that it feels like a final burst of energy. I hope not, but it might be.”
Homage 10 x 5 - Blake's Artists is at the Waddington Galleries in London until 11 December