Peter Blake at Tate Liverpool

    The best definition of pop art I have come across is, predictably, Andy Warhol’s. “Pop art,” drawled the great reducer, “is liking things.” It is an idiotic insight, the kind of opinion a six-year-old might have mouthed, but it is also perfect, because it manages in five supremely uncomplicated words to nail down the emotional thrust of the movement while alerting us to all of its shortcomings. Liking things is good. But surely there needs to be more to it than that?

    With the better pop artists, there obviously was. With the lesser ones, there probably wasn’t. I would definitely place Peter Blake in the first group. His poignant retrospective at Tate Liverpool unveils an artist who likes most of the things pop artists can generally be expected to like – girlies, pop stars, wrestlers, comics, advertising signs, Marilyn Monroe – but who likes them gloomily and damply, as if they brought him lots of solace and little joy. Blake is capable of charm and jokiness, even the odd touch of blankness. But, in the end, the overwhelming emotion you sense in him is desperation. Yes, he likes things, but as grimly as a capsized sailor likes his lifeboat.

    He was born in 1932, in Dartford, Kent, and much is made of the fact that he spent the war years away from home, an evacuee to the countryside. The war took away his childhood, it is said, and forced him to recreate it later by sticking images of girlies and pop stars into his pictures, where a real teenager would have stuck them on a bedroom wall. I accept some of this: the masturbatory loneliness of the teenage English onanist is a mood Blake certainly captures all the way through his 50-year career. However, having explored Dartford, I can also testify to an endemic gloominess to those parts that would have been Blake’s inheritance had the war happened or not. It’s a Kent thing: a flatness, a dampness, a grimness that comes with the territory.

    The Tate show immerses you in it straightaway, with a row of small grey paintings done while Blake was still at art school, the bleakest of which shows two schoolboys standing in a field with their hands in the pockets of their shorts, fiddling glumly with their privates. Neither acknowledges the other. Both stare sadly ahead. Even the badges they have pinned to their lapels are sad badges. One seems to be advertising membership of a club for dog-spotters. Another gets you into the cinema on Saturdays. It is 1955 and, judging by the hopeless demeanour of these two lost chappies, with their sticky-out ears and knobbly knees, there is absolutely nothing in Britain to look forward to.

    A few years later, in 1961, Blake outs himself as one of the glum schoolboys by painting his famous Self Portrait with Badges, in which he shows himself dressed from head to toe in ill-fitting denim, his chest busy again with badges, clutching an Elvis book. His pose repeats the schoolboy one: standing bolt upright, staring straight ahead, as if a car had caught him in its headlights. On its most superficial level, it is a picture about liking things – Pepsi-Cola gets a badge, as do the American flag and Elvis. But, beneath the surface, it is about knowing what a comic figure you cut; about noting your own podgy inelegance; about hating what you see.

    The grim 1950s, whose drizzly mood the young Blake is so excellent at capturing, eventually slink back into their bedsit, to be replaced by the vibrant, snazzy and tempting 1960s, whose pace he turns out to be equally skilled at recording. He was teaching at St Martin’s School of Art by then, and the resulting immersion in the moods of London in the 1960s immediately ups the tempo of his art. The grim little paintings of staring schoolboys give way to a series of brightly coloured shrines devoted to the sexy new gods imported from America.

    A typical Blake of the period would surround a few delightful photos of Marilyn, cut out of fan magazines, with a striking op-art frame painted onto rough wood with lurid household emulsions. We know from interviews that these lively bits of homemade heraldry were intended as a sly riposte to Jasper Johns, the American painter whose painted targets and flags were – and still are – considered to be among the most revolutionary artworks of the 1950s. By quoting Johns alongside Elvis and the Everly Brothers, Blake pays homage to the American dream, but because he is British, and cursed with the sarcastic gene, there is a mocking note.

    The show contains a fine assortment of these shrines. There is a famous one devoted to the Beatles, another to the Beach Boys. Girlie Door, from 1959, has Sophia Loren sniffing sexily at a flower while Marilyn shows off her legs below. The catalogue suggests complex readings of these eminently watchable classics, but I don’t sense any complication in them. All we are witnessing is a pent-up British libido worshipping the objects of its desire in a very British fashion. British DIY at its wonkiest is capturing British nostalgia at its fiercest.

    Blake’s most famous contribution to our culture – his iconic cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album – gets short shrift in this display. The rest of us might believe it to be a crowning achievement, but its designer clearly thinks differently. The whole Sgt Pepper adventure is dealt with cursorily and grudgingly in a tiny alcove. Instead, the show dwells on what was surely the most regrettable interlude in Blake’s career: his sad involvement, in the 1970s, with the ludicrous Brotherhood of Ruralists.

    I had better watch what I say here. The last time I criticised the Ruralists at any sort of length, I was rounded upon afterwards in a BBC lift by Ian Dury, the late pop singer and a former pupil of Blake’s, who threatened to bash me up if I ever spoke badly of his teacher again. The Ruralists were formed on March 21, 1975 (the spring solstice, alas), and their loudly declared ambition was to revive British art by returning it to its rural roots. To that end, the Ruralist cast moved out of London and into the countryside, forming a loose painting fraternity that specialised in fairy pictures and florid Shakespearian topics necessitating the inclusion of half-naked girls.

    Titania was a favourite subject; Ophelia another.

    Blake was, unquestionably, the best of the Ruralists, but even he could not avoid their central failing – not, I now see, being a bunch of dirty old men leching after young girls in the woods, but the far more serious crime of being unforgivably silly. No amount of waving wands and forcing kids to dress up as fairies could turn England, in the years of the three-day week and the miners’ strike, into a replica of preRaphaelite Britain.

    Thankfully, Blake seemed to realise this soon enough. By the beginning of the 1980s, he was back in London, back on the urban front line, where he continues to this day to make interesting art, though in the fiddly and inconsistent manner of a man who lost most of his subject matter when he lost his darkness. So he is a sad clown, and a very English clown at that. If he were a comedian, he’d be Tony Hancock. If he were a round-the-world yachtsman, he’d be Donald Crowhurst.

    Pop art is supposed to be glamorous and sexy, but when it crossed the Atlantic and Blake took it up, it became problematic and seedy. It is not the most glorious of achievements, but it is a very British one.