Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Art of Bob Peak

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Note: A coffee-table book, The Art of Bob Peak, retailing for $79.00 USD, was published in May 2012. For more information about the book, click here.

Bob Peak (1927-1992) was perhaps the greatest commercial illustrator active in the U. S. after World War II. He is an artist whose work can more than hold its own with that of such pre-WWII figures as Charles Dana Gibson, Norman Rockwell, and J.C. Leyendecker. A brilliant draftsman, he's noted for his superb command of figure drawing and portaiture, his strong compositional sense, and his masterful approach to color design. No illustrator has done more to integrate the techniques of such modernist schools as Fauvism, Art Nouveau, Cubism, and Futurism into the visual vocabulary of the broader culture. A characteristic piece is the one above from his series for the film Camelot. Peak layers multiple images, utilizes modernist rendering techniques for the various visual elements, and brings it all together with a flamboyant, decorative use of color.

An excellent example of Peak's use of modernist technique is his tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (at left). The image owes a great deal to the effects found in the Cubist and Futurist works of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp. But Peak's approach is different; he isn't out to capture multiple perspectives or the simultaneity of movement in a single image. He's enamored with the geometric patterning generated by the earlier painters' techniques. He reproduces them, and he also recalls the monochromatic palette of several of those painters' works to brilliant decorative effect. The approach is especially suitable for a treatment of Astaire and Rogers; the Art Deco sets in their films derived their style from the same work Peak references. Peak pays tribute to Astaire and Rogers and acknowledges the "high-art" roots of their films' visuals in one fell swoop.

The covers of Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, and TV Guide were regular showcases for Peak's work in the 1970s and 1980s. A good deal of this material is just stylish renderings of celebrities, like his treatment of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, or Madonna in her "Material Girl"/Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mode. (Click the stars' names to view.) But every now and then, Peak would create a portrait that was nothing less than profound. His depiction of Mother Teresa (at right) recalls late Rembrandt in its evocation of the modern saint's dignity and nobility. He captures the sad air that always seemed to accompany her. Peak's approach is more caricatural than Rembrandt's, and his color design more ebullient, but the techniques create a resonance than can hold its own with the drama of the Dutch master's late-period works.

Peak is best known for his movie posters, and his work is widely considered the best that field of commercial art has ever seen. Many of them have become pop-culture classics (click the titles to view)--My Fair Lady, Camelot, Petulia, Funny Girl, Enter the Dragon, Equus, Superman, Excalibur--known and admired by people regardless of their interest in the movies for which the posters were produced.

The high point of Peak's movie-poster work is probably the piece he produced for Apocalypse Now (at right). Peak brilliantly epitomizes the film's ambitions and drama in a single image. With the scorching red-on-black color scheme, and the swirling flare lines emanating from the image of the boat, he captures the delirious, hallucinatory tone the film was seeking. The central portrait of Marlon Brando's Kurtz suggests rock melting into lava, an inspired depiction of a character who represents the acme of civilization degenerating into barbarism. The image of Martin Sheen's steadfast Willard hangs in the background. The concrete quality of the rendering of Willard suggests a stability distinct from the nightmarish quality conveyed by the rest of the piece, but the integration of the portrait into the color scheme suggests the character is also part of the insanity. I can think of no other movie poster that has captured the dynamics of the film that inspired it so well.

Ultimately, Peak's work was what art critic Clement Greenberg would have derided as kitsch. For all his sophistication, Peak essentially assimilated the techniques of modernist innovators and other "high-culture" artists, slicked up their application, and utilized them in an unabashedly commercial context. But Peak's work is kitsch of the highest order. At his most accomplished, he made those techniques his own, creating imagery that is uniquely his. His work is popular art at its best: technically masterful, with an energy and verve that to many, makes "high art" look dull by comparison.

More examples of Peak's work are available for viewing at, and at dozens of sites maintained by collectors and enthusiasts.

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