The debut issue of London-based Faux-Pas magazine, out this month, features an exclusive interview with Orson Peellaert about his father's work. In the following excerpt, a conversation with editor Nour Saleh, Peellaert discusses the legacy of The Adventures of Jodelle, Pravda and Rock Dreams, as well as Guy Peellaert's last published series, Fashion Dreams.
Guy Peellaert’s ‘Rock Dreams’ created a huge sensation when it first came out, he created album covers for the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, amongst many other innovative and spectacular works. Could you share with us what were some of his interests and passions?
I would say his raison d’être as an artist coming of age in post-war Europe was to contend with and make sense of the overwhelming dissemination of images—whether cinematic, photographic, or even symphonic with the emergence of jazz and later rock music—that came from the US and captured his imagination in a powerful way. From imported magazines such as Life to the golden age of Hollywood productions which he would see at least three times a week as a young man, this flood of images was the epitome of modernity as well as the opportunity to break free from his bourgeois family background and from a desolate Old Continent and its suffocating traditions. Throughout his career, in very different forms, he never ceased to digest, repurpose, question and ultimately transcend the images that had « colonized his mind ».
How he did he come up with the image for the Diamond Dogs album by David Bowie, and what message was he trying to convey with it?
Bowie already had the vision of himself as a half-dog, half-man creature for the Diamond Dogs album sleeve, and the idea came from a picture of Josephine Baker posing as a panther. Peellaert had recently promised Mick Jagger to create the artwork for the Stones’ next album, and Bowie, who was at the top of his game, went behind his friend’s back and almost tricked Peellaert into collaborating with him. They met for breakfast in London and Bowie invited Peellaert to come and hang around the photoshoot he had planned with Terry O’Neill and the greyhound dog. Peellaert ended up directing the now famous shoot and Bowie eventually convinced him to create the final image, which is partly based on the photos O’Neill took that day. Peellaert always worked from photographic material, and he realized a sophisticated photomontage with scenes from a Coney Island freakshow—a typical Peellaertian reference which combines Americana with grotesque elements—before using the elaborate airbrush paint technique he had developed for Rock Dreams. The dog’s genitals were removed at the request of the record company, and the few uncensored copies of the album that did get out are now worth an absolute fortune.
In 1965 he created ‘Les Aventures de Jodelle’ and then in 1967 ‘Pravda La Survireuse’. Can you tell us about these two women heroines, and what they represent?
Jodelle was Peellaert’s big breakthrough. It was a tour de force of pop art, reversing and subverting the logic behind Warhol and Lichtenstein’s appropriation of mass media images : while they took comic strips and repurposed them for canvases destined to be admired in the art-world institution, Peellaert was doing the opposite. He was interested in the promise of pop art as effectively demolishing boundaries between high and low, or between art and life, and experimenting with the book form as a multiple, like Warhol’s silkscreen prints proclaiming the end of the fetish of art as a unique object, but liberated from the bourgeois values associated with the art world at the time, especially in Brussels (his hometown) and Paris, which was among the most conservative art capitals. As a character, Jodelle doesn’t have a « meaning », she represents an experiment. The story is a pastiche of Hollywood B movies, espionage and peplum, and the heroine is modeled after Sylvie Vartan, a famous French pop singer. Jodelle has an unmistakable literary nonsensical humor that is influenced by the poetry of Boris Vian and Eugene Ionesco, who were both published by Eric Losfeld, who also financed and released Jodelle.
Although she was created barely a year after Jodelle, Pravda is a very different animal, created from the outset as an iconic encapsulation of the « Truth » of the time—an era caught between rebellion, the struggle for emancipation and utopia— and also the artist’s alter ego. Gone is the voluptuous eroticism of the Jodelle style : Pravda is all about screaming acid colors, elastic shapes under the influence of LSD, the disenchanted American dream, anarchic storytelling and the transition from pop to a rock sensibility. Think the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix taking the place of the Beatles. For all its fluorescent color palette, Pravda is a lot darker than Jodelle.
Pravda is also known for her iconic image, where she is holding a Coca-Cola bottle, what does that image represent?
This image has so many layers of meaning, it would deserve an entire essay. Of course that’s why it works so well, and it was indeed intended to be something of an enigma. The basic composition is inspired by Gustav Klimt’s « Veritas Nudas » in which a naked red-headed allegory of the Truth holds up a mirror to the viewer, inviting self-examination. Pravda (« Truth » in Russian) is holding up a Coke bottle to make us reflect on consumer society, and it’s an ambivalent play on the fetish of advertising-derived imagery that functions like propaganda (like many artists involved in pop art, Peellaert had worked in advertising in a former life). Pravda, of course, is also the name of the famous Soviet Communist newspaper created by Lenin, and in the context of the Cold War and Peellaert’s obsession with America, this takes on yet another meaning.
There is a photo of Mick Jagger with the painting behind him of Pravda that says, ‘Pravda is Free, Pravda is a Loner, Pravda is Quiet But Pravda Acts’, were these words part of Guy Peellaert, in other words, how he felt about himself?
He never claimed it for this particular image, but he did reveal late in his life that Pravda had been his female alter ego. This famous image was created specifically as a high end silkscreened poster around the time of the student uprisings of 1968. It was meant to sum up the « values » of the character, a self-sufficient, reluctant heroine who embodies freedom and independence, and is defined by her actions, not her words. In the context of Peellaert’s life and career, it’s hard not to draw parallels, as he stood alone on his own singular path, and rejected the status as well as the pseudo-conceptual discourse that came with being an « artist » in the institutional sense of the word. He wanted the art to speak for itself. These are very much his own values and attributes.
There were often political messages in Guy Peellaert’s work, even perhaps from the choices of his heroine’s outfits. Was one of his aims with his works, to shake up society?
He would have found it pretentious to set out to shake up society, and said he was more interested in conveying emotions, but his work repeatedly caused stirs, from Jodelle and Pravda who defied censorship and coincided with the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, to Rock Dreams and its often controversial portraits of the Stones in drag or as Nazi officers entertained by prepubescent girls, right until 2000 when he created an outrageous painting for the official New Year card of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, then France’s Interior Minister. He was very much apolitical and would be best described as « libertaire », although the word has very different, almost contrary connotations in English. His work often reflected a committed, uncompromising point of view on the world and its leaders, but he was not interested in actual politics, which he viewed as narrow-minded and ludicrous.
Guy Peellaert worked on Fashion Dreams and Fashion Dreams II for ‘Next’ the art supplement of Liberation, could you tell us about those projects? And what messages lay behind the images?Fashion Dreams is a two-part series of « imaginary portraits », or « dreams » in the spirit of Rock Dreams, all done in the computer-collage technique Peellaert had developed for Twentieth Century Dreams. Part One paired Peellaert with designers such as Rick Owens and Paul Smith, and the aim was to visually convey the « feeling » associated with those designers’ collection. There is a haunting portrait of Serge Gainsbourg and Catherine Deneuve walking up a flight of stairs after a boozy night out in Paris. Part Two essentially took the same approach with womenswear, this time designers were asked to name a woman who embodied the spirit of their collection. Karl Lagerfeld picked Amy Winehouse, and Peellaert created a melancholic collage about her struggle with addiction, but I think the most striking was the ghoulish portrait of Kembra Pfahler, who was suggested by Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy. Both series were realized in 2008, and they turned out to be Peellaert’s last published works, as he passed away in November that year.
How did he view fashion in general, and also in his work?
I would say he had a love-hate relationship with fashion, as many artists do. On the one hand he was stimulated by fashion as an image-driven system. As someone who defined himself as an « image-maker »—for lack of a better word, as « artist » made him cringe, although it’s really the only one that applies—he knew the tremendous potential of fashion when it comes to disseminating images on a certain scale and allowing them to have impact. On the other hand, he was unfit for the rampant commercialism, uniformity and self-promotion that has defined fashion in the last couple of decades. He never could have operated like many of today’s prolific, productivity-oriented « image-makers », setting himself up as a business and employing a support system of dozens, churning out hundreds of images every month. He had great fun with fashion in the Sixties, but that was all about experimentation and his process really was that of an outsider considering fashion as a kind of performance art, never as a commodity. Whenever his work was plagiarized by fashion or advertising in general—and it happened a lot throughout his career—he would just break the mold, move on and never look back. That is not to say he wasn’t grateful when the fashion world allowed his work to benefit from the exposure, such as when Carla Sozzani organized a mini-retrospective in her 10 Corso Como gallery in Milan, or when Céline sponsored an installation based on Pravda in Tokyo, but he typically always maintained a cautious and knowing distance.