Peter Blake

The Masked Zebra Kid

1965

Artist
Peter Blake born 1932
Medium
Acrylic paint, enamel paint, printed paper and ink on paper on wood
Dimensions
Support: 552 x 267 x 38 mm
frame: 700 x 398 x 74 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1974
Reference
T01877

Not on display

Display caption

Blake was one of the leaders of British Pop Art, a movement which celebrated contemporary popular culture. This is one of a series of collages he made during the 1960s with pin-up photos, posters and other ephemeral images. Blake has long been a fan of wrestling and had been to watch an American wrestler called the Masked Zebra Kid fight several times. The autograph of the wrestler in the centre of the painting is surrounded by photographs taken from a fan magazine.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T01877 THE MASKED ZEBRA KID 1965

Not inscribed
Acrylic, enamel, collage and assemblage on wood, 21 3/4×10 7/8×1 1/2 (55×22×3.2)
Purchased from Alex Reid and Lefevre Ltd (Grant-in-Aid) 1974
Coll: Robert Fraser Gallery; bt Studio Marconi 1968; Galleria Internazionale, Milan; Lambeth Arts Limited; Alex Reid and Lefevre Ltd
Exh: Peter Blake: Paintings Robert Fraser Gallery, October–November, 1965 (19, repr.); Jeunes Peintres Anglais, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, October 1967 (4); An Exhibition of Contemporary British Painters and Sculptors, Lefevre Gallery, April–May 1974, (5, repr. p.11)
Lit: Robert Melville in catalogue of Peter Blake: Paintings, 1965, p.19
Repr: The Tate Gallery 1974–6: Illustrated Biennial Report and Catalogue of Acquisitions, p.45 (colour)

The Masked Zebra Kid is the name of a real United States wrestler (in many other works by Blake on this subject the characters are imaginary). All the photographs used in the collage and the one from which the head at the top was painted came from Boxing and Wrestling Illustrated. They were probably taken from an article about The Masked Zebra Kid's international travels; one (top right) shows a contest in Japan, another (bottom left) seems to be from an Australian tour.

The centre piece of the collage of photographs is the autograph of the wrestler himself, which the artist obtained from him after a bout at the Commodore Cinema in Hammersmith, probably in 1964. Blake had gone round to the stage door just as The Masked Zebra Kid came out wearing his mask and a big belted gaberdine mackintosh. Jann Haworth (Mrs Blake) remembers that a little boy came up and asked for the wrestler's autograph, that he pushed him aside, but said to Blake ‘You can have it: I've seen you before’. Then he climbed into a Volkswagen Beetle and drove off. The contrast with the car was extraordinary especially as he was a gigantic man. The artist had in fact seen him fight several times, though only in Britain. On this occasion he thought that he was probably already quite old and would by now be retired.

The mask the Zebra Kid wore, and which he was never seen without, was, according to Blake, ‘pretty frightening’. It was black and white with red round the eyes, like blood. In this work the wrestler's head in the centre of the first row of photographs wears a tiny embroidered version of the mask made by Jann Haworth. The artist said that though he had been prepared to make it himself in the first place, when it came to the point she offered to do it.

Blake has been going to wrestling matches since childhood and particularly likes masked wrestlers. He likes the kind of mystique which is attached to them, the suggestion that they might be disguised members of the Royal Family, or famous doctors, or hideously scarred. Blake likes wrestling basically as theatre. He likes the fantasy, the dressing up, the way the programmes always have a very clear pattern: the first bout is a straight clean fight between two keen sporting wrestlers, after that it becomes theatre or pantomime. It is usually very clear who is the hero and who the villain and the relationship with the audience is very important. The Zebra Kid, however, did not have an identifiable character in this respect and the artist places him rather in the category of ‘monster phenomena’, though he thought a big kick from a mysterious camouflaged source might be part of the idea behind the character.

The dark, mysterious way the head of the wrestler at the top of the picture is painted reinforces his character, but according to the artist there are also practical reasons for this. Apparently the picture was one of the last works he made for his 1965 show at the Robert Fraser Gallery, and it had to be painted very quickly and simply in order to be ready in time. (Blake's way of working is usually to do the general blocking in and preliminary work very quickly and then to take months or years to finish the picture off). Here the painting of the head is very toned down and the darkness was used to disguise the fact that it was not as finished as he would have liked. However the darkness was also international and varnish added later by a restorer has now perhaps brought out the details of the image too clearly. It should also be noted that the darkness of the head is connected with the dark colour of the wood ground onto which the artist worked directly, as he frequently did at that time. Following the practice in traditional portraiture, Blake used a dark umber ground, and still does for most of his portraits.

The lettering of the wrestler's name is traditional fairground, shopfront lettering, and the light and shade effects are appropriate to the zebra stripes, but the artist points out that he has often used this kind of lettering in other contexts. That it looks zebra-ish was not deliberate. In lettering Blake said he liked to step outside himself and work as a signwriter, and in fact he was to some extent trained in this respect. He also likes to make deliberate signwriters' mistakes - getting letters wrong, etc. Here the signwriter did not have time to finish the ‘The’ of the title, which is just sketched in.

All the images, including the Zebra at the top appear old, slightly yellowed and faded. This is deliberate and was enhanced by the use of yellowish tinted perspex to cover the photograph collage. (It was removed by a restorer at some point but the Tate Gallery Conservation Department proposes to replace it, advised by the artist).

The toy Zebra came from a group of Victorian cut-out toy animals which the artist had acquired, though he cannot now remember where. There are three ways in which he uses this kind of material. Sometimes it can trigger a picture: in this case getting the Zebra Kid's autograph probably started the work off, though the artist acquired it as a wrestling fan and did not set out to get it with the picture in mind. At other times he searches through what he already has to find suitable objects or images with a specific purpose in mind. Alternatively he may go out and try to buy something for a picture on which he is working.

The origins of this series go back to the strong-men, circus, fairground, boxing-booth images of the mid and late fifties, for example ‘Siriol, She Devil of Naked Madness’, ‘Loelia, World's most Tattooed Lady’. These may have come from pictures in wrestling magazines but they were not in fact wrestlers. The present second series of wrestlers began in 1961, probably with ‘Baron Adolf Kaiser’ (1961–3). And of these pictures the most closely related to ‘The Masked Zebra Kid’ are ‘Dr Tortur’ and ‘Kamikaze’ -the latter, one assumes, being one of the ace Japanese fighter pilots who did not die and became a wrestler. It was only in this second series that Blake began to use actual found objects in the work, above or below the images of the wrestlers.

The series paused in 1965 with several pictures including ‘Roxy Roxy’, ‘La petite Reine noire d'Afrique’ and ‘Franck and Jessie the James Brothers’ unfinished. However in 1976 Blake began to work on them again and has begun two further works as well as several watercolours of wrestlers.

This entry has been corrected and approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978