From the Circus Sidelines, a British Pop Artist Captured the Wild Beasts and Curious Characters of the Side-Show Milieu

In the 1950s, British pop artist Peter Blake began to draw the circus.

He sketched from the edge of the center ring, in the circle where the performers would wait before appearing on stage. At sites like Bertram Mills in London’s Olympia, or Nottingham’s Goose Fair, thousands of adults and their children would applaud trapeze artists, monkeys, and clowns. Back then, the circus offered a view onto the world’s wild beasts and curious characters—pre-television and before widespread travel, these were not easily witnessed, and especially not up close. Captivated by the magic of the troops who performed there, Blake chose to celebrate these idiosyncratic personas and their unique way of life. 

“Side-Show,” currently showing at Paul Stolper Gallery, revisits one of Blake’s emblematic portfolios that came out of this milieu—a selection of wood engravings, produced from 1974–1978. Displayed alongside previously unseen photographs, studies, and sketches from Blake’s personal archive (the artist curated the show himself), this fairground-themed selection shows how a hearty interest in folk tradition was brought to the center stage of pop art. “When I was a kid these were my interests—the fairgrounds, circuses, rock ‘n’ roll,” the artist remarks on the subject of this show. “The work became very autobiographical and about popular culture, and that’s what became pop art.” And as an elderly man, Blake still enjoys rock concerts and fairground attractions. 

The choice of the traditional technique of wood engraving suits the folkish theme, with Blake’s sophisticated employment of this craft uncovering an alternative aspect of his output. An image of a bulky guy with elaborate tattoos matches Blake’s more recent interest in tattoo art—etchings not in wood but on the skin. There are “freaks”—a Bearded Lady, a midget, and a giant in saggy dungarees—and there are beauties: in Liberty Beauty Rose (2014), one of three new etchings, a young woman perches cheerily in a can can skirt. But Blake would not draw a line between what looks bizarre and what looks attractive; he sees wonder on the margins and among the marginalized, and finds pleasure in documenting eccentricity. 

Hannah Gregory

“Side-Show” is on view at Paul Stolper Gallery, London, Nov. 27, 2014–Jan. 10, 2015.

Follow Paul Stolper Gallery on Artsy.

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