Homage is such a weird one; part most personal, part public ablution of some other greater one’s feet. At whatever level it’s clearly revealing of both sides of a (typically) unbalanced relationship but when both idolised and genuflector-alike stand as considerable forces in The Arts, weightier baggage is lumped onto the laundry-cart.
It could be that the necessary cleansing routine for us ordinary folks includes the bawling-out of our deference but a) this is often from within some protected cohort of friends, family or fans and b) nobody’s listening – not really. But for a figure of stature – like Peter Blake say – to come out and darkling thrush his humble joy in the presence of some other, greater genius is well, significant.
This is not meant as some entrée to sychophancy. I can’t stand the idea that artists are better than the rest of us – although (in contradiction) the contribution real artists make is, for me, central to the quality of life itself. I mean specifically that there is likely to be meaning in the fact of the public adoration of one world-renowned artist for another. And Blake’s sincere but gobsmacking, painstaking, deliberate and normal-life-denying love for ‘Under Milk Wood’ is – when you are confronted with the scale of it – phenomenal.
Twenty-eight years and counting. Zillions of man hours that could have been spent on other ‘productive’ things. Used instead to tickle or tease out 170 (and the rest!) mini collages or water-colour scenes or pencilled portraits from some drunken Welshman’s ‘Play for Voices’. What is that all about? Obsession? Love? Vulnerability, even, to some sense of his own inadequacy? I visited Oriel y Parc in St Davids, Pembrokeshire to get a proper look – at Llaregubb.
In the sunken but airy, slightly creamily-lit gallery and…
Ok, so we get told the following; Blake’s been doing this Dylan Thomas thing since about 1985. At college (much earlier) ‘Welsh students’ had stoked his interest but the genesis of this project – or more accurately another Dylan Thomas project – came around the mid-Eighties. When that originally-proposed book of etchings was abandoned (apparently because it was a struggle in every sense) Blake continued with his Under Milk Wood obsession as a form of extra-curricular ‘hobby’.
But why this – Under Milk Wood -and why this intensity?
Knowing too little of Blake’s work to bypass these questions, I needed and was fascinated to break into the link between these two extraordinary and extraordinarily different men. So I cheated and listened to or read more of the background material provided by the gallery.
The painter/artist (in filmed interview) rather flatly describes the ‘separate me’ who is the illustrator – the non-painter, the other bloke – who makes this Milk Wood stuff of an evening, after a day’s work. He is not so much restrained as simply quiet; a quiet, serious but madly zealous fan, then? Quietly-voraciously zealous rather than madly anything, was my impression. In truth – you can’t help but calibrate along with the interview – Peter Blake is pleasingly unpretentious but a smallish, dare I say dullish personality.
Like his handwriting beneath the pictures he is orderly but yes, so undemonstrative he may appear small-hearted. Hard, then, to immediately reconcile this on-screen, quintessentially English keeper of deep secrets with the Welsh torrent himself.
The cod psychologist in anyone works overtime in situations like this. (Erm, or is that just me?) The real live artist discussing the real live art in front of us. O-kaaay. But he doesn’t get asked ‘why Thomas?’ Or ‘why Milk Wood?’ so we must either go to the work for that which confirms or denies or figures, or simply close down the detective instinct. Who needs reconciliation? Who needs explanation?
What matters is the stuff on the walls (alright) but it feels right to offer a doubts-and-all response, a personal response and this began with concern at what felt like a lack of passion; or the lack of a key into that passion. The admittedly short film provided suggested that Blake isn’t the sort to rave colourfully in conversation, even when (surely?) measuring out that which he treasures. Meaning the fear that he may be a (prosaic? Skilled but mechanical?) builder of metaphorical train sets in some spotless attic did occur.
It is not until he offers a snippet of
disguised portraits… including Terry Wogan as a woman… and Billy Piper
that encouragingly fecund tones begin to bubble out, gently.
I remind myself – or perhaps Blake does? – that this is the geezer who was poptastically famous in the sixties, who dun that seminal album cover, who was all about hallucinogenic brightness… or something.
Instinctively, I go look at the Portraits. They are (ahem) quietly sensational. Beyond alive; they are life-affirming in their twinkling, mischievous, animal presence. It’s a game-changer. Evans the Death, Nogood Boyo and Mr Ogmore-Pritchard and Mr Ogmore are visceral or tragic or ghostly or wicked but what they have in common is a triumphant presence – they are with us, here and now. The doubts have gone.
On to the Dreams, which similarly float free from the shackles-that-might-have-been. They too have their own, brilliant, independent being. The pictures are no longer merely piggybacking ‘captions’ –
Now behind the eyes and secrets of the dreamers in the streets rocked to sleep by the sea, see the titbits and topsy-turvies, bobs and buttontops, bags and bones, ash and rind and dandruff –
they are works of art, in fact. And if there is a language in these pictures, let it work; read it; it trills and dances – voluptuously – or it nails that sense of a bloke with all his daft and tragic dimensions. There is suddenly a flow, a dialogue, a shared exuberance between poet and illustrator… and onlooker.
In retrospect I made the error of underestimating at first contact the apparent modesty of this show against the flooding brilliance of the inspiration. I walked into Oriel y Parc and feared smallness. Foolish. Lazy and foolish. Wrongheaded too to wonder if it may have been a tactical error by the curator/gallery/artist/his ‘people’(?) to set the thing out with Illustrations of scenes and locations up front; but this I did wonder. Because these pictures are simply less immediately arresting than the Portraits and the Dreams further in to the exhibition.
Only when I had read my way into the pictures (and actually contemplated at some length the triumph that are the Portraits and many of the Dreams) did I successfully gather in the whole experience. Lesson learned.
Blake makes both his reverence for and his sheer enjoyment of Milk Wood gorgeously explicit. In the Portraits he captures a winking Mr Pritchard, a Voice who might secretly be Samuel Beckett. In the Dreams, Mrs Rose Cottage’s eldest Mae smoulders in something close to fire, nakedness and poster-paint whilst Sinbad Sailors sincerely and absurdly
…hugs his damp pillow whose secret name is Gossamer Beynon.
It’s alright for it to be a lot of fun, this art thing.
This exhibition now goes back to the owner but I am informed that a New York show is a distinct possibility. Go mad and unquietly extravagant. Go pay homage.