Larger-than-life heroic figures from fiction, the comics and Hollywood cinema first fascinated Peter Blake as a young boy and adolescent in his native Kent, but continued to cast a spell on him well into his middle age and beyond. Tarzan, the manlier than manly caucasian raised as a wild child by apes in the African jungle and who served as the protagonist of a prolonged series of magazines and books by the American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), first appeared in print in 1912, exactly twenty years before Blake’s birth. It was through the feature films released from the 1930s onwards, which the artist initially saw as a child on his Saturday morning visits to the ABC Minors cinema club, that his image of this bare-chested, ultra-muscular Alpha male became fully formed in his imagination. Blake’s earliest visit to Los Angeles in 1963 had brought him into proximity for the first time with the Hollywood dream factory that he had previously experienced only from the comfort of a cinema seat. Though movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe had already entranced him and entered into his art, there was perhaps now an intensified connection for him between the processes of film-making and the narrative dimension and memorable cast of characters of his paintings. Tarzan, at least as performed by famous actors, was now within his reach.
It was the most famous and successful incarnation of Tarzan, the Austro-Hungarian-born American athlete and actor Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984), whose features commonly appear in the Tarzan portraits painted by Blake at regular intervals over many decades. The first six Tarzan films released by MGM between 1932 and 1941 were the main source of his material. This intermittent series includes several canvases of (for Blake) atypically large dimensions, starting with Tarzan and his Family at the Roxy Cinema, New York (begun in 1964 but not completed until 2002, with much reworking during his two-year tenure between 1994 and 1996) as Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London, and a comically chaotic assemblage of dolls and plastic trees and foliage, Tarzan Box - ‘Big Iron Bird She Come’ 1965, encased in a wooden box.
In these various paintings, executed with an obsessive attention to detail often over many years, the shy and decidedly reticent Blake appears to have identified with the grunting prototypical super-hero as an unlikely alter-ego. His Tarzan is habitually presented in a state of near nudity, so as to insist on his animal-like and primitive qualities, but in various guises that together form a cumulative, complex, multi-dimensional portrait of a fictional character made flesh. At the Roxy Cinema he is shown having a day out, going to the pictures as a family man, disporting himself in the stance of Michelangelo’s David and clad only in a loincloth, accompanied by his bare-breasted partner, the child referred to simply as Boy and the almost human chimpanzee, Cheeta, who was their constant companion. In Tarzan, Jane, Boy and Cheeta 1966-75 they have moved indoors to a wood-panelled interior connoting Tarzan’s reluctant return to conventional life in his native England; a portrait of Weissmuller presented as a family snapshot, copied probably from a promotional image rather than a film still, is one of several items propped prominently along a shelf that stretches across the entire width of the upper register of the canvas. In the most recent of these major paintings, Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour: The Tarzan Family 1995-05, that same head of the apparently ageless Weissmuller reappears on a massively larger scale, again with his unconventional but loving nuclear family; on this occasion he is shown having an incongruous meeting with the world’s first and foremost conceptual artist, the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, as part of an imaginary world tour generously organised for him at Blake’s behest.
Tarzan Meets the Jungle Goddess is one of the most personal, whimsical and fantasy-laden of all the Tarzan pictures. Conceived during Blake’s ‘Ruralist’ period of the 1970s, when he and his first wife, Jann Haworth, and daughters Liberty and Daisy had decamped from London to the tranquility of the village of Wellow, Avon, south of Bath, in some ways it stands as a metaphor for his own escape from the demands of urban existence and the art world to the simpler pleasures of country life. The gentle and quintessential English landscape in which the Blakes made a new home for themselves was by no means the equivalent of what used to be called (in what we would now regard as a breathtakingly politically incorrect way) ‘the dark continent’, nor of the Tahitian paradise to which Gauguin had moved in the late 19th Century in search of a life stripped to its essence, close to nature. Given, however, the basic premise of the picture, with Tarzan in the role of paterfamilias, Jane as a vulnerably naked and whiter-than-white ghostly apparition flanked by a trio of equally naked Africans, and a leopard and her cub as the family pets, Blake could be allowed the fiction of his bucolic environment as an Edenic setting for an escape from the pressures of the city. The shifting identities of the characters – further complicated by Jane’s resemblance to the Shakespearean heroines, Ophelia and Titania, imagined in paintings on which he likewise began work during his Ruralist period – introduces further layers of ambiguity into a painting whose frieze-like arrangement of deceptively direct and friendly personages presents us with a fantasised reinvention of ourselves from a prosaic reality to another dimension.
We are very grateful to Marco Livingstone for preparing this catalogue entry.