Guy Peellaert: Artist who designed albums for Bowie and the Stones

Friday 21 November 2008 01:00

The iconic book Rock Dreams, created by the Belgian artist Guy Peellaert with the British rock writer Nik Cohn, had a huge impact when it was first published in 1972, and went on to sell more than one million copies worldwide. Issued under various titles, it told the story of popular music, from the crooners of the Forties to the glam days of the early Seventies. In a series of 125 striking tableaux, Peellaert displayed an amazing gift for recreating the likenesses of his heroes while putting them in situations echoing their mythical status or playing on their most famous lyrics.

Frank Sinatra was pictured as a newspaper cutting, the "Frankie Goes Hollywood" headline later inspiring Holly Johnson and his Eighties group, Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Eddie Cochran, Tom Jones and Cliff Richard were drawn as guests at Elvis Presley's last supper, feasting on burgers and drinking Coca-Cola. The Beatles were depicted in a series of images, from being chased by a bobby in the streets of Liverpool to having tea with the Queen.

For Peellaert, though, the Rolling Stones were the most louche band of all. He painted them holding court at the Ad Lib club; he recreated the food fight at the launch of their Beggars Banquet album; he portrayed them in Gestapo uniforms surrounded by pre-pubescent girls; and he anticipated Keith Richards's cameo in the film Pirates of the Caribbean – At World's End by 35 years when he depicted the guitarist and Mick Jagger as buccaneers dancing on a coffin. "Whose coffin is that?" the Stones singer had asked Peellaert pointedly when they met in Germany in 1973. "I replied: 'I don't know, Mick'," recalled Peellaert. "He knew very well it was supposed to be Brian Jones." Jagger suggested that the artist create the group's next album cover, following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and David Bailey.

Peellaert got on famously with Jagger, even after the artist broke his promise of exclusivity and designed the cover of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs, which came out in June 1974, four months before the Stones' It's Only Rock'n'Roll was released. Peellaert's depiction of Bowie as a grotesque creature, half-Ziggy, half-dog, with balls on the back of the gatefold sleeve – quickly airbrushed after the first batch went out – is arguably the singer's most striking cover. In 2000 EMI commissioned Peellaert to design the packaging for the Bowie at the Beeb collection.

Peellaert was a painter, illustrator, graphic artist and photographer, and happily played with all of these roles to create Pop Art with a dark side. He added computer technology to his palette for the book Twentieth Century Dreams (1999), on which he collaborated with Cohn again. For this project, the pair drew on the iconography of a whole century and engineered unlikely meetings between Cassius Clay and Jackie Kennedy or De Gaulle and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. "I seem to be someone who has eaten up a lot of images and who is spitting them back as best he can," said Peellaert in 2001. "I don't even mind if you call it kitsch. The juxtaposition of characters is not gratuitous and their meetings aren't as incongruous as they might seem at first glance."

Peellaert was born in Brussels in 1934. An indifferent pupil while at school, he nevertheless managed to secure a place to study fine arts in the Belgian capital and found refuge in the music of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. He also devoured film noir, pulp literature, pop culture and Pop Art. Indeed, he seemed in thrall to that movement when he created the psychedelic cartoon characters "Jodelle" – a dead ringer for the French yéyé artist Sylvie Vartan (1966) – and "Pravda, La Survireuse", a brunette modelled on the chanteuse Françoise Hardy (1968).

In the mid Sixties, Peellaert moved to Paris, where he worked variously in advertising, set design (for the Crazy Horse saloon and the Casino de Paris), television and film. He also contributed to the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri. Peellaert first met Cohn after moving to Germany to work in animation. He was trying to make a TV series loosely based on Cohn's book Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, a history of rock published in 1969. "The first episode would have been about a singer in Nashville, a kind of tragic hero. Johnny Cash was interested but the producer insisted on the German star Udo Jurgens," he recalled. "We decided to turn our stories into a book."

Out of the débâcle, the pair hatched the idea for Rock Dreams. "Nik was the music specialist and I was the dreamer, the fan. It was quite a nice marriage," said the illustrator, who slaved away for three years while Cohn reportedly only spent a fortnight on the copy. "We made a list of people we wanted to talk about. We wanted to make the book believable and straight drawing wasn't enough. We had to get this lived-in quality into the images, what people now call photo-realism."

Peellaert hoarded and archived magazines, books and pop memorabilia, the ground floor of his Paris atelier reminiscent of Peter Blake's workshop in London. He was also a big film buff, named his son after Orson Welles, and made posters for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Robert Altman's Short Cuts and the Wim Wenders films Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire.

He exhibited internationally and his work was often compared to the twilight world of Edward Hopper. "I like city rats, in the noble sense of the word, the sex-appeal of neon lights and Formica," he said about The Big Room (1986), his second coffee-table book, which took him 10 years to complete and attempted to encapsulate the surreal beauty of Las Vegas with pictures of Joe DiMaggio, Liberace and Marilyn Monroe.

Elle magazine may have exaggerated when it called him "the Michelangelo of Pop" in 1974, but Peellaert was hugely influential and collectable and remained in great demand.

"I'm not bothered about death," Peellaert told Beaux Arts Magazine in 2003. "Not having any passion while you're alive, that's the terrible thing. That's why Rock Dreams still works today. Emotions keep you alive. Rock will always represent the extravagant, the flashy, the fantasy. These pictures are a memento to that dream."

Pierre Perrone

Guy Peellaert, artist, painter, designer and photographer: born Brussels 6 April 1934; married (one son); died Paris 17 November 2008.

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