Guy Peellaert

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Painter, photographer, and graphic designer Guy Peellaert remains best known for the book Rock Dreams, which documented the history of popular music via fantastical, iconic imagery that ratified the mythical…
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Painter, photographer, and graphic designer Guy Peellaert remains best known for the book Rock Dreams, which documented the history of popular music via fantastical, iconic imagery that ratified the mythical status of superstars ranging from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to the Beatles. Peellaert also created some of the most memorable album covers in pop history, most notably David Bowie's Diamond Dogs and the Rolling Stones' It's Only Rock 'N Roll. Born in Brussels on April 6, 1934, Peellaert was the product of an aristocratic family, a source of embarrassment throughout his life -- he rebelled against his estranged father's wealth and influence by immersing himself in jazz, film noir, and popular culture, and even volunteered for duty in the Korean War. Upon returning to Europe, Peellaert settled in Paris, working as a set designer for the Crazy Horse Saloon, the Casino de Paris, and the Roland Petit Ballet Company. He also moonlighted as a cartoonist for the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri, drawing on his interest in the pop art movement to create a series of psychedelic characters inspired by French ye-ye singers like Sylvie Vartan and Fran├žoise Hardy. After relocating to Germany to accept an animation job, Peellaert befriended rock journalist Nik Cohn, and together they began work on a television cartoon series based on the writer's rock & roll history, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. The project gained little traction, but the concept paved the way for Rock Dreams, first published in 1974.

A lavish coffee-table book that reportedly sold in excess of a million copies, Rock Dreams was originally conceived as a series of would-be motion picture stills that reimagined the seminal moments and players in postwar popular music as figures akin to modern-day gods. Cohn quickly sketched out the basic scenarios, but Peellaert spent more than three years completing the artwork, working from photographs and a massive archive of newspaper and magazine clippings. The finished images boast a dreamlike yet decidedly lurid sensibility, with portraits ranging from Buddy Holly saluting farewell while climbing the steps of an aircraft to a fur-clad Bob Dylan in the back of a limousine to the Rolling Stones dressed in Gestapo uniforms and surrounded by adolescent girls. "Nik was the music specialist and I was the dreamer, the fan," Peellaert later recalled. "We made a list of people we wanted to talk about. We wanted to make the book believable and straight drawing wasn't enough. We had to get this lived-in quality into the images -- what people now call photo-realism." Not only did Cosmopolitan dub Peellaert "the Michelangelo of Pop" following Rock Dreams' initial publication, but its success also introduced the artist into the celebrity circles he fetishized -- actor Jack Nicholson purchased a number of the original pages, and John Lennon framed the book's cover, which depicted the former Beatle sitting at a lunch counter alongside Presley, Dylan, and Stones frontman Mick Jagger.

As for Jagger himself, he commissioned Peellaert to create the cover art for the Rolling Stones' 1974 album It's Only Rock 'N Roll, although it was superseded by his notorious painting for David Bowie's glam swan song Diamond Dogs, issued four months earlier -- depicting the singer as a half-man, half-canine grotesque complete with hybrid genitalia, the cover was censored immediately after its initial release, and un-airbrushed original copies routinely fetch thousands of dollars on the secondary market. (A quarter century later, EMI contracted Peellaert to design the cover of its Bowie at the Beeb collection.) Beyond his pop music projects, Peellaert also created posters for feature films including the contemporary classics Taxi Driver, Wings of Desire, and Short Cuts, and spent more than a decade on The Big Room, a surreal celebration of Las Vegas undertaken in collaboration with American author Michael Herr. In 1999 Peellaert reunited with Cohn for 20th Century Dreams, an "alternative history" undertaken largely on computer in order to engineer such unlikely pairings as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Kennedy, and Charles de Gaulle and Humphrey Bogart. The project was nevertheless a commercial failure: "I seem to be someone who has eaten up a lot of images and who is spitting them back as best he can," the artist said in 2001. "I don't even mind if you call it kitsch. The juxtaposition of characters is not gratuitous and their meetings aren't as incongruous as they might seem at first glance." Peellaert died in Paris on November 17, 2008 -- he was 74.