Tom Sutcliffe: The originals are still the best

The week in culture

Related Topics

We live in a culture where lack of originality is one of the cardinal sins, though not all cultures (historically or geographically) share that disapproval and – on the evidence of an exhibition I went to the other day – not all artists live in fear of it, either. The show was Peter Blake's new exhibition at the Waddington Galleries in London, an enlivening and appealing collection of recent work titled Homage 10x5. The theory behind the exhibition is simple: Blake has produced five works in tribute to, or imitation of, 10 artists he admires and has been influenced by. The execution, though, is a little more complicated.

In some cases (the word is doubly appropriate in this context), it looks as if Blake has simply decided to "make one of his own". His homage to Joseph Cornell, for example, takes the essential components of one of Cornell's enigmatic boxes – weathered wood, a plain white watch face, found bric-a-brac, a print of a cockatoo – and produces his own version. It isn't compartmented like the original but it doesn't exactly seem to comment on the original either. I suppose you could say that it has a Blakean inflection to it – in its selection of trinkets. But if you weren't an expert you couldn't really be blamed for thinking it might actually be a Cornell.

His homage to Saul Steinberg, The New Yorker's great cartoonist and illustrator, is quite different, since it takes the form of three-dimensional collages reconstructing Steinberg still lives. The sensibility of both men clearly overlaps. Like Blake, Steinberg was drawn to commercial art, and toys, stickers and postcards, so Blake's eclectic assemblies of just such things on a little square of plywood under a vitrine has the feel of a wish fulfilled, as if he's wanted to make the assemblies on Steinberg's imaginary depicted tabletops come true. And what instantly disappears, of course, is any trace of Steinberg's style. It strikes you as an odd kind of homage, until you glance back at a Steinberg still life (there's one in the exhibition catalogue) and find that the style is almost all you can see.

Then there's what you might call the sacrificial falling short, a genuine act of homage because it involves a real humility. Blake's homage to Matisse (a collagist, like so many of the artists he pays tribute to here) consists of five close reworkings of Matisse's great, late work The Snail, which is currently in Tate Modern. Blake uses a similar palette to Matisse, and roughly similar shapes for his patches of coloured paper.

And in each case, the effect falls subtly short of the original, sometimes because a component is missing and sometimes because the balance is out. It's like an essay on Matisse's sense of composition and spacing, conducted wordlessly through the medium of coloured paper, and it returns you to the original with greater admiration.

Paradoxically, the least successful works here are also the most successful tribute, in part (it's only honest to admit) because I'd never heard of the artist before I saw this show. He's called H C Westermann and this isn't the first time that Blake has tipped his hat to him, because he's also one of the more obscure figures on Blake's famous cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Blake's homages are jolly things – a set of model galleons and three masters which have been manned by competing groups of toy figures. On one, for example, little lead farmers square off against plastic punks, while in another medieval knights are ranged against (and who knew you could buy model figures in this category?) "people being frightened in B movies". These pieces are engaging and funny, but they're also tellingly lightweight when set against the works that inspired them, beautifully carved wooden troop ships which Westermann called Death Ships, in reference to his wartime service in the Pacific, where he witnessed kamikaze attacks on US vessels.

And I'm still trying to decide whether the best thing I got from the show was the introduction to Westermann's utterly unique art or the pleasure of Blake's clever and knowing allusions. I may have to conduct a homage of my own – imitating Blake imitating Cornell – to find out. Who cares about originality?

A star's last, supporting, role

I thought it quite canny of Sir Ian Richardson's family to get his ashes incorporated into the structure of the new theatre at Stratford, buried in the foundations. At least his commemorative connection with the theatre will be more difficult to overturn than poor Lord Cottesloe, demoted to a mere hospitality room to make way for a living benefactor with money to spend. But the thought occurs that Sir Ian's example might be followed in other cases.

As I understand it, human ash has no detrimental effect on the structural strength of concrete – being as effective as any other form of aggregate – and I imagine that there are quite a few people who would like the idea of contributing to a new building in this rather literal fashion, and would be prepared to pay for it. Theatres have filled out their auditoria with sponsored seats before, and raised money with sponsored and inscribed bricks, so in these times of financial stringency why not provide a service for dedicated theatre-goers who want to attend in perpetuity?

I suppose location might be a bit tricky if demand is very high (nobody, I suggest, is much going to want to underpin the floor of the men's lavatory, however necessary this part of the building is to a satisfactory theatrical experience) but given the amount of concrete a building consumes it shouldn't be a problem – and it's probably greener too.

Doctors get what they call "ash cash" for certifying cremations. Theatres should think about getting a cut, too.

When everything clicks into place

What is it about sniper-rifle assembly scenes that is so satisfying? Perhaps I'm wrong in assuming that this is a widespread public taste, but the loving attention directors pay to such moments in thrillers certainly suggests that it is. I even remember a comic sketch that involved a character silently miming every element of sniper assembly, a joke that only worked because everyone watching could be assumed to be familiar with the motions he was going through. There's a canonical example of the trope in the new George Clooney film, The American, this time given an added frisson by the fact that the assembler looks as if she's taken time out from Milan Fashion Week to check out equipment for her next hit. And naturally Clooney's character times her as she transforms a box of components into death from a distance. I'm assuming that it has something to do with expertise – the pleasure of watching any moderately complicated thing being done without hesitation or uncertainty. But there's a bit of machinery fetishism in there too, delivered by the sound of machined metal clicking perfectly into place. And all of this is sauced by the idea of imminent death. I'm as susceptible as the next person to the appeal of the thing. But I hope one day someone will give us an assassin who has to refer to an instruction booklet before each step.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Planner

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen withi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

Recruitment Genius: Existing Customer Telephone Consultants

£13000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Every day they get another 1000...

Recruitment Genius: Contract Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the endless and beginningless election campaign goes up and down

John Rentoul
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

What the advertising world can learn from Zoella's gang

Danny Rogers
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor