As the Second World War came to an end, Peter Blake was entering his teens. He has said that, after so many years of privation, there was a sudden and unquenchable thirst in Britain for popular entertainment. The television boom was still a few years away and, for Blake and his family, one form of entertainment trumped all others.
‘Every Tuesday evening, I went with my mother and Aunty Phyllis to a place called the Drill Hall to watch professional wrestling,’ he recalled in later life. ‘We would stand very close to the corner of the ring, in a packed smoky hall — and in the interval go into the municipal tearoom for a cup of tea and a cake.’
A love of wrestling has stayed with Blake from his adolescent days in suburban Kent, in southeast England, right through adulthood and into old age (he turns 90 in June). Wrestlers have also occupied a special place in his work across the decades, dating back to the early 1960s when he produced paintings such as Baron Adolf Kaiser and Irish Lord X (which today belong to the Arts Council Collection and Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery respectively).
On 22 March, one of the artist’s favourite wrestler images, Doktor K. Tortur, is being offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London.
Blake attended wrestling bouts most frequently during the years he spent studying at London’s Royal College of Art, between 1953 and 1956, when he ‘would go two or three times a week’. What was it about the sport that he so enjoyed? ‘I loved the theatre, the fantasy, and the idea of good versus evil,’ says Blake.
He also bought wrestling magazines and grew familiar with pictures of the sport by the likes of the US painter Thomas Eakins. In the 1960s all these influences — and more — combined, resulting in one of the most memorable bodies of imagery in British Pop art.
Blake’s wrestlers are ostensibly portraits — in the case of the earliest examples, such as Irish Lord X, portraits of heavy-set, hyper-masculine hardmen, painted with a deliberate roughness.
Doktor K. Tortur, from 1965 (below), is an advance on those works in several ways. For one thing, there’s a hint of warmth about the subject — witness the glimmer in his left eye and the half-smile on his lips.
Blake also created the image with a new brand of acrylic paint (called Cryla) and benefited from its higher degree of colour saturation, which helps give the Doktor such a striking presence.
Thirdly, the work is a collage, the depiction of the wrestler only serving as part of the whole image. Doktor K. Tortur consists of a hardboard panel and a wooden frame, with Blake having affixed a handful of real objects to both.
These objects add to our sense of the subject’s personality — perhaps most notably his Teutonic roots. Blake chose a late-1920s Mercedes Benz car as one of three models placed on top of the frame.
What’s more, the items beneath the wrestler’s name include a rolled-up piece of fabric in the faded colours of the German flag and a booklet illustrating castles along the Rhine.
In the mid-1960s, there still existed — lingering on from the war years — a certain unease and suspicion among the British population towards Germany. Blake appears to have been tapping into that with Doktor K. Tortur.
Blake has spoken of Doktor K. Tortur’s ‘distinguished nastiness’, saying in 2003 that it ‘was a work I always liked very much’
Like almost all of the artist’s wrestlers, this one wasn’t real: he was an invention of Blake’s. And although, as noted above, he was not an out-and-out villain, he still had to seem sinister enough to inspire fear — hence the choice of name and his bold physical appearance: the Doktor is bare-chested, with a slim moustache and totally bald head, off the crown of which light bounces.
Blake has spoken of the character’s ‘distinguished nastiness’, saying in 2003 that ‘Doktor K. Tortur was a work I always liked very much.’ It has been shown in a number of important Blake exhibitions over the years, including his retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1983.
Over time, Blake would introduce women to his cast of wrestlers, as well as tag-team duos. In the early 1990s he was even asked by the BBC to make a documentary about wrestling, called Masters of the Canvas, with his all-time favourite fighter, Kendo Nagasaki.
Since then, wrestling in Britain has been in steady decline, thanks to a range of factors including competition from American franchises. Blake has continued to make art inspired by the sport, however. As recently as 2015, he included a group of watercolours of wrestlers in an exhibition at his gallery, Waddington Custot, in London’s Mayfair.
‘So many names, so many memories,’ is how Blake looks back on a lifetime of watching wrestling. And that’s surely key to the success of his imagery: the pure fandom in which it is rooted.
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Where a lot of Pop art adopts a cool, detached or even ironic approach to its subject matter — think Warhol’s soup cans or Lichtenstein’s comics — Blake has tackled wrestling simply as a devotee.
When it comes to painting the sport he loves, he has never fought shy.