5 October 2018 - 27 January 2019
‘100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake’ says it all in the name. In its brand-new exhibition, the House of Illustration dedicates half of its space to an oeuvre of famous illustrator Quentin Blake’s previously unseen work from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. It is truly a delve into Blake’s more private work in his painting of figures, often far away from the scratchy and charismatic ink drawings for which he is so well known.
The exhibition is divided into four rooms; we begin with what we know. The first space displays a series of drawings that Blake produced during his only art training: weekly life drawing sessions at Chelsea School of Art. It is here that we see what Blake does so well – a few choice marks to conjure a plant, an easel, or a facial expression so beautifully. It’s encouraging to see Blake’s very first works on humble sugar paper with simple yet effective watercolour shading. Blake would go home and redevise the art classes, drawing from imagination. In many of the pieces the mostly female subjects and shown as painting their own still lives or making their own dresses, unaware of being painted. From the offset, not only was Blake talented but also showed an interest in the creation of art, in the imagination behind the canvas. He flits between titles in ‘100 Figures’, playing the illustrator and the painter, swapping between narrative and emotional exploration.
In the following rooms we delve into the unknown – the large hung canvases are unrecognisable from his more traditional work. These paintings were created privately while he continued to illustrate for public commissions. He uses dark oil paints to show abstract, ambiguous and sometimes eerie figures, as if appearing in some kind of dreamscape. The large pieces are intriguing and experimental, but I couldn’t help but think that sometimes Blake wasn’t at ease with this scale. The colours, however, are beautiful and Rothko-esque. Blake describes these compositions to be more emotion focused, which he has chosen to carry out with colour rather than form. I was particularly stricken by the space showing his pieces from the 1980’s: a metaphorical slap in the face with vivid oranges, pinks and reds, quite a contrast from the previous 20 years of focus on more sombre colours.
Blake does not dwell on the faces, but keeps them blank or half shaded in. Some assume even animal characteristics, particularly in the last room where they crouch and pounce like feral creatures. It is an interesting and mature exploration of the body; distorting and playing with its characteristics, making us question its perception. The viewer can mark a progression of this exploration through the House of Illustration’s simple yet effective curation: Blake’s perspective and technique shifts, which the viewer can easily track through the chronological order to the space. I particularly liked the culmination of the exhibition – a small dark room showing Blake himself, interviewed by the curator, Olivia Ahmad. The viewers are left alone to make their own judgments throughout the exhibition, but Blake gets the final word. Be it art or illustration, it is "all part of the same business," according to the artist.
Blake himself founded the House of Illustration back in 2014. There was a slight risk therefore that this exhibition would be an artist ‘tooting their own horn’. Blake avoids this however, in the stripped back rooms of the gallery. There is minimal – sometimes too minimal – information provided, so the viewer is pushed to read through their own reactions to the paintings and drawings. Blake always keeps you guessing with his playful characters or his use of colour. Nothing is perfect or fussed over; he does not take himself too seriously in his art, this remains his charm through his various genres. Rather fittingly, on looking around the exhibition, some pieces were still being hung by members of the gallery. I thought this serendipitous with Blake’s mantra: art is a living, breathing process, created to make us question, but more importantly created to be enjoyed.