My favourite painting: Peter Blake

'It was exciting to find a fellow artist working on similar themes to what I was doing.'

Orthodox Boys, 1948, by Bernard Perlin (1918–2014), 30in by 40in, Tate Collection.

Peter Blake says:
‘I first saw Orthodox Boys at the Tate Gallery in the 1950s, when I was working on paintings like Boys With Badges while at the Royal College of Art. It was exciting to find a fellow artist working on similar themes to what I was doing. My interest extended to other Magic Realists, such as Ben Shahn, and it was wonderful to be aware of these paintings being made across the Atlantic. I was lucky enough to meet both Bernard Perlin and Shahn.

Sir Peter Blake is an artist, best known for the sleeve design for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

John McEwen comments on Orthodox Boys:
The painting Orthodox Boys—two Orthodox Jewish teenagers in front of a newspaper kiosk outside the Canal Street subway in New York—is considered Perlin’s masterpiece. The furtive look of the boy opening a hebrew text is explained by the anti-Semitic sentiments of some of the graffiti.

Bernard Perlin was born in Richmond, Virginia, USA, a son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. his father and grandfather were tailors. At a teacher’s suggestion, he enrolled in the New York School of Design and, having completed a travelling scholarship, worked for the US Office of War Information. his government posters, such as Let ’em have it. Buy extra bonds, featuring a GI hurling a hand
grenade, remain well known.

The style and content of Orthodox Boys shows the influence of Ben Shahn, a wartime work colleague. Shahn, 20 years his senior, was an ardent advocate of Social Realism, an established international art genre reanimated in the USA by the 1930s Depression. Perlin also worked for Life and Fortune magazines.

In peacetime, he dropped Social Realism for Italy and beautiful landscapes, later retreating to Connecticut to escape the New York art world and the new fad of what he considered ego-driven Abstract expressionism: ‘Their painting is millionaire art. Who else can afford it? Or live with it?’ he hated parties, ‘where the person who’s talking to you is looking over his shoulder to find someone who’s more important’ and, for a period, he even gave up painting altogether.

Orthodox Boys was presented to the Tate in 1950 by the art impresario Lincoln Kirstein. It was recently on view, but is now back in storage.