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Peter Blake’s Under Milk Wood drawings marry Pop Art pep with dreamy poetry

All the pictures 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 the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

The artist’s book, blending pictorial and literary expression, is a wonderful alchemy — mysterious, unpredictable, going beyond conventional illustration. Illuminating our understanding of painter and writer alike, it is one of the great collaborative forms of the past century: Chagall interpreting Gogol’s “Dead Souls” through a post-revolutionary lens in the 1920s; Matisse rendering Mallarmé’s symbolic poems as flows of pattern and texture in the 1930s; Paula Rego unforgettably distilling the tension between fairy tale and psychodrama in her “Jane Eyre” lithographs in the early 2000s.

A late, fine addition to this canon are Peter Blake’s scores of watercolours, collages and pen and pencil drawings responding to Dylan Thomas’s radio drama “Under Milk Wood” (1954) — an unlikely but rewarding union of English Pop artist with Welsh lyric poet, both wayward spirits. The book appeared in 2013; the original works have never been shown in London until now, and there are also recent additions to the project. They are displayed to the soundtrack of Thomas’s lilting prose-poetry in Waddington Custot’s delightfully absorbing new exhibition in London, Peter Blake: Under Milk Woodstaged to celebrate the artist’s 90th birthday on June 25.

Quite magically, Blake conjures the “dismays and rainbows” of life and love in Thomas’s “darkest-before-dawn” seaside town of Llareggub (say it backwards) in his own idiom — the Pop cut-outs and found images which have been his trademark since he made his name with his Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover for the Beatles in 1967. Under Milk Wood evokes everyday joys and frustrations through dreams and fantasies; Blake pulls the hallucinatory into vibrant immediacy.

When teenage Mae Rose Cottage says “I’ll sin till I blow up!”, Blake paints nipples exploding into huge scarlet circles on a pin-up nude. Screen stars and rodeo heroes are pasted on a night sky for “the boys dream wicked”. A cut-out print of a bright white naked girl, arms raised, pasted on a monochrome photograph of a narrow street, represents butcher’s daughter Gossamer Beynon, who “high-heels out of school”, making men’s “eyes run from the trees and windows of the street, steaming. . . and strip her to the nipples. . . She blazes naked past the Sailors Arms.” The pub is in shadow; in the sun, the windows of the terraced houses line up like voyeurs.

Collage of a black and white photo of a naked woman sitting down next to a goat with large red discs on her breasts

Collage of illustrated people from across eras

© Courtesy the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

These are glorious comic pieces, more transgressive now than when Thomas set down his characters’ dreams in entirely gender-stereotypical terms. Yet the images feel authentic, affecting, because Blake evokes the milky innocence and wistfulness underlining the play’s erotic obsessions.

He paints the lover haunting lonely Myfanwy Price’s slumbers, “Samson-syrup-gold-maned, whacking thighed and piping hot”, as a rippling bodybuilder, taller than the church tower, stuck on a snowscape where everything is frozen — the heat of longing versus cold reality. You feel the clammy weight, and the sadness, when “Sinbad Sailors hugs his damp pillow whose secret name is Gossamer Beynon.” And where Thomas describes Mae Rose as she “peels off her pink-and-white skin in a furnace in a tower in a cave in a waterfall in a wood and waits there”, Blake paints precisely those layers in phantasmagorical watercolor washes.

Watercolor of a man in bed hugging a white pillow

Watercolor in three strips: a naked man and woman in walking into a hedge;  three men staring;  men embracing naked women in a bar

© Courtesy the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

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

Thus we watch a play built on sound — Under Milk Wood was written for the radio—transformed into visual fact. Here the postman who “rat-a-tats hard and sharp on Mrs Willy Nilly” taps his knuckles, as if knocking at a door, straight on the flesh of a pale nude. Organist Organ Morgan’s nightmare of “the Women’s Welfare hoofing, bloomered, in the moon” is a cabaret routine of multicolored ravers which Blake based on a photograph of the 1890s dance troupe the Tiller Girls, performing as horses.

In his Chiswick studio/junk emporium, Blake has collected seven decades of trivia and memorabilia, photographs, posters, labels, stickers. He meets his match from him in Thomas’s endless lists, the “titbits and topsyturvies” which bring to life setting and character in a play without set or props. Mrs Organ Morgan’s shop window — stamps and rat poison, custard powder and henna leaves, theater posters and confetti packets — is a jumbled, intricately drawn grand still life, a grid of desire. In “will you take this woman”, collaged brides with metallic badges for heads, Blake sends up his own aesthetic of accumulation, calling to mind his “Self-portrait with Badges” (1961), the figure weighed down by so many signs and symbols—an artist for the age of semiotics.

Collage of goods in a shop seen through a window

Watercolor of a row of women in a rainbow of tights doing a high-kick

© Courtesy the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

One joke of that painting is that Blake, a natural narrator, is the least theoretical of artists. When in the late 1960s he left London, then founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists, he rejected fashionable conceptualism and minimalism, and fled to folklore. His painting of him did not sustain the brilliance of “Self-portrait”, but the nostalgic sensibility yielded the marvelous alice in wonderland illustrations. Some of their melancholic absurdity is here too: Thomas’s incessant tick-tocks in mad Lord Cut-Glass’s “kitchen full of time” become for Blake clocks which tilt, slant, fall over each other, grandfather clocks, antique timepieces, hourglass chimers, cuckoo clocks, “clocks with no hands for ever drumming out time without ever knowing what time it is”.

Like classical drama, Under Milk Wood unfolds within a day, and the chorus for its anatomisation of dreams and domesticity is “Time passes. Listen. Time passes.” The children playing kiss-chase, the lovers at “dewfall, starfall” in the wood, dramatise Thomas’s life-long theme: “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang 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 sweeps in and out, imposing its rhythm on town, people, animals, in the collage “this is Llareggub Hill”. Ocky Milkman “drowned asleep” empties his churns into the ever-flowing river, streaming cobalt, azure, greenish gray in a glistening watercolour. Evans the Death laughs “high and aloud” while his mother de el, a doubled figure in bright pink against bare trees in a white landscape, mixes fistfuls 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 bottom

© Courtesy the artist/Waddington Custot (2)

Then “the thin night darkens” in Llareggub to conclude the play, and Blake superimposes a Victorian scrapbook angel on to cross hatched tree trunks and a softly inked bat and owl — a moment of joy and fear as dusk falls and specters haunt the mind. It is a beautifully textured final scene, condensing what the entire series shows: Blake’s pull between romantic nostalgia, expressed in a vision of a cozy rural retreat, and flair for incongruous, unexpected pictorial games, prove him, at his best, still one of British art’s most inventive image-makers.

To July 23,

‘Peter Blake: Under Milk Wood’, Enitharmon Editions,

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