Peter Blake’s Under Milk Wood drawings combine the pep of Pop Art with dreamlike poetry

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All images in this piece are from “Images for Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas” by Peter Blake

Gray watercolor of a woman's face between two men's faces

© Courtesy of the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

The artist’s book, mixing pictorial and literary expression, is a marvelous alchemy, mysterious, unpredictable, going beyond conventional illustration. Illuminating our understanding of painter and writer is one of the great forms of collaboration of the past century: Chagall interpreting Gogol’s “Dead Souls” through a post-revolutionary lens in the 1920s; Matisse rendering Mallarmé’s symbolist poems as flows of patterns and textures in the 1930s; Paula Rego distilling the tension between fairy tale and psychodrama in an unforgettable way in her “Jane Eyre” lithographs in the early 2000s.

A late and refined addition to this canon are the dozens of watercolours, collages and pen and pencil drawings by Peter Blake in response to Dylan Thomas’ radio drama “Under Milk Wood” (1954) – an unlikely but enriching of an English pop artist with a Welsh lyric poet, both wayward minds. The book was released in 2013; the original works have never been shown in London until now, and there are also recent additions to the project. They are featured on the soundtrack of Thomas’ singsong prose poetry in Waddington Custot’s delightfully captivating new exhibition in London, Peter Blake: Under the Milkwoodstaged to celebrate the artist’s 90th birthday on June 25.

Quite magically, Blake conjures up the “disarrays and rainbows” of life and love in Thomas’ “darkest before dawn” seaside town of Llareggub (tell it to the world). ‘upside down) in his own idiom – the Pop cutouts and found images that have been his trademark since he made a name for himself with his Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover of the Beatles album in 1967. under the milk wood evokes everyday joys and frustrations through dreams and fantasies; Blake draws the hallucinatory into a vibrant immediacy.

When teen Mae Rose Cottage says “I’ll sin till I explode!”, Blake paints nipples exploding in huge crimson circles on a nude pin-up girl. Movie stars and rodeo heroes are plastered across a night sky for ‘Boys Dream Wicked’. A cut-out print of a stark white nude girl with her arms raised, glued to a monochrome photograph of a narrow street, depicts butcher Gossamer Beynon’s daughter, who “came out of school in high heels”, making “the eyes of the men flee from the trees and windows of the street, smoking . . . and undress her to the nipples . . . She blazes naked in front of the Sailors Arms. The pub is in the shade; in the sun, the windows terraced houses line up like voyeurs.

Collage of a black and white photo of a naked woman sitting next to a goat with big red discs on her breasts
Collage of illustrated people from all eras

© Courtesy of the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

They are glorious comedic pieces, more transgressive today than when Thomas described his characters’ dreams in entirely gender-stereotypical terms. Yet the images seem genuine, touching, as Blake evokes the milky innocence and melancholy that underscore the play’s erotic obsessions.

He paints the lover who haunts Myfanwy Price’s lonely sleep, “Samson-syrup-gold-maned, thigh-slapping and very hot”, like an undulating bodybuilder, taller than the church steeple, glued to a landscape of snow where everything is frozen – the warmth of desire against the cold reality. You feel the clammy weight and sadness as “Sinbad Sailors hugs his damp pillow whose secret name is Gossamer Beynon”. And where Thomas describes Mae Rose as she “peels her pink and white skin off in an oven in a tower in a cave in a waterfall in a wood and waits there,” Blake precisely paints those layers in spooky watercolor washes. .

Watercolor of a man in bed hugging a white pillow
Watercolor in three strips: a naked man and woman walking through a hedge;  three men watching;  men kissing naked women in a bar

© Courtesy of the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

“When he wrote those sequences, I don’t imagine he ever thought of them visually, he would have thought of them as words,” Blake said. “So I really enjoyed creating something that was never meant to be visual, visual.”

Thus, we are looking at a piece built on sound – under the milk wood was written for radio — turned into visual fact. Here, the postman who “rat-a-tats hard and sharp on Mrs. Willy Nilly” taps his knuckles, as if knocking on a door, directly on the flesh of a pale nude. Organ Morgan’s nightmare of “sabotaged, disheveled, moonlit women’s well-being” is a cabaret routine of multicolored ravers that Blake based on a photograph of the 1890s dance troupe, the Tillers. Girls, performing like horses.

In his studio/trash store in Chiswick, Blake has collected seven decades of trivia and memorabilia, photographs, posters, labels, stickers. He meets his soul mate in Thomas’ endless lists, the “titbits and topsyturvies” that bring the setting and character to life in a room without decor or props. Mrs. Organ Morgan’s display case – stamps and rat poison, custard powder and henna leaves, theater posters and packets of confetti – is a large, intricately designed still life, a grid of desire. In “Will you take this woman”, brides glued together with metal badges as heads, Blake sends his own aesthetic of accumulation, recalling his “Self-portrait with badges” (1961), the figure weighed down by so many signs and symbols — an artist in the age of semiotics.

Collage of goods in a store seen through a window
Watercolor of a row of women in a rainbow of tights doing a high kick

© Courtesy of the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

A joke of this painting is that Blake, a natural storyteller, is the least theoretical of the artists. When at the end of the 1960s, he left London, then founded the Brotherhood of Rurals, he rejected fashionable conceptualism and minimalism, and fled towards folklore. His painting did not retain the brilliance of the “Self-Portrait”, but the nostalgic sensibility gave the marvelous Alice in Wonderland illustrations. Some of their wistful absurdity is there too: Thomas’ incessant ticking in the crazed Lord Cut-Glass’ “kitchen full of time” becomes for Blake clocks that tilt, tilt, overlap, clocks grandfather, old watches, hourglass chimes, cuckoo clocks, “clocks without hands to always beat the time without ever knowing what time it is”.

Like the classic drama, under the milk wood takes place in a day, and the refrain of his Anatomy of Dreams and Domestic Life is “Time flies. Listen. Time passes. Children playing chase for kisses, lovers at “dewfall, starfall” in the wood, dramatize Thomas’ lifelong theme: “Time kept me green and dying/Though I sing in my chains like the sea “. Blake, turning to the play in old age, is most exquisite in his response to its pastoral elements.

The sea goes in and out, imposing its rhythm on the city, on the people, on the animals, in the collage “this is the hill of Llareggub”. Ocky Milkman “drowned asleep” empties his churns into the ever-flowing river, flowing cobalt, azure, greenish gray in shimmering watercolour. Evans the Death laughs “loud and loud” as his mother, a figure lined in bright pink against bare trees in a white landscape, mixes handfuls of snowflakes and currants to make Welsh cakes.

Watercolor of two people in pink dresses on a snowy field by bare trees
Watercolor of a man spanking a person's bare buttocks

© Courtesy of the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

Then “thin night darkens” in Llareggub to conclude the piece, and Blake layers a Victorian scrapbook angel over hatched tree trunks and a lightly inked bat and owl – a moment of joy and awe then that dusk falls and specters haunt the mind. It’s a beautifully textured final scene, condensing what the whole series shows: Blake’s appeal between romantic nostalgia, expressed in a vision of a comfortable rural retreat, and a flair for incongruous and unexpected pictorial games, the prove, at his best, still one of the most inventive image-makers in British art.

As of July 23, www.waddingtoncustot.com

‘Peter Blake: Under Milk Wood’, Enitharmon Publishing, enitharmon.co.uk

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