Guy Peellaert; Belgian Painter Of Surreal Art, Album Covers

Mr. Peellaert's cover for David Bowie's
Mr. Peellaert's cover for David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" album provoked cries of censorship after the record company deleted part of the image. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley and Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Guy Peellaert, 74, a Belgian painter-collagist whose fervid imagination produced surreal album covers for John Lennon, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, as well as images for a seminal book about rock mythology, "Rock Dreams," died of kidney cancer Nov. 17 at a hospital in Paris.

The book was a collaboration with the prominent British rock journalist Nik Cohn, who wrote how they intended to convey a "cinematic approach" to pop history and "approached the project, not as commentators or fine artists, but primarily as fans. Even more than the actual music, we were both obsessed with pop mythology."

"Rock Dreams" was published in the early 1970s and reportedly sold more than a million copies. It featured a bloated Jerry Lee Lewis clutching a bottle to his chest and stumbling along a neon-lit street; the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, drug-dazed and muse-abandoned, sitting alone in a garbage-strewn practice room; Ray Charles, his arm cradling a woman, cruising behind the wheel of a convertible.

A reviewer for the London Independent described Mr. Peellaert's images as rock iconography -- "almost as thrilling as the music itself, but obviously not the same thing. It was the pornography of rock. It was also its stained-glass window."

In another book with Cohn, "20th-Century Dreams" (1999), Mr. Peellaert envisioned Mussolini walking in on Hitler stretched out on the floor playing with model trains; President Nixon and Mao Zedong weeping at "Lassie" reruns; and President Reagan and the pope comparing footwear while Nancy Reagan struggles to fit Cinderella's spiked heel onto Mother Teresa's giant foot.

In other images, a bloated Elvis Presley, stuffed into a sheriff's uniform, bursts through the dorm door of a pot-smoking Bill Clinton; and a champagne-bearing Prince (the performer) meets a naked Princess Diana in a seedy passion-pit room.

"Rock Dreams" launched the demand for Mr. Peellaert's album illustrations. His work for Bowie's "Diamond Dogs," featuring the singer as a dog-man grotesque, sparked a censorship war in 1974 when the record company erased the dog's genitalia from the original painting.

In what some critics saw as vindication, the erased area reappeared on CD versions of the cover. Meanwhile, Mr. Peellaert earned commissions to illustrate movie posters, most notably a full-length portrait of Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976).

Mr. Peellaert later created posters for filmmakers Robert Bresson ("L'Argent"), Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas," "Wings of Desire") and Robert Altman ("Short Cuts").

In December 1999, French interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement commissioned Mr. Peellaert to create surreal greeting cards that featured French historical figures in provocative poses. Images of Charles de Gaulle as Hitler and Napoleon trying to sexually assault an armor-clad Joan of Arc stirred controversy.

"Chevènement doesn't like Napoleon much," Mr. Peellaert told the Independent. "I was only following the minister's orders."

Guy Louis Peellaert was born into a wealthy Brussels family on April 6, 1934. He broke ties with his father, who had demanded that his son pursue a medical career.

He attended a fine arts school in the Belgian capital before settling in Paris as a set designer at theaters and a comic strip illustrator inspired by psychedelic imagery and pop art of the 1960s.

Mr. Peellaert spent a decade creating a coffee-table book about Las Vegas personalities with Michael Herr, author of the celebrated Vietnam War book "Dispatches." Subjects ranged from mobster Bugsy Siegel to flamboyant entertainer Liberace. Mr. Peellaert was quoted expressing fondness for "in the noble sense of the word, the sex-appeal of neon lights and Formica."

But it was for "Rock Dreams" that Mr. Peellaert was widely remembered. He told Beaux Arts Magazine in 2003, "Rock will always represent the extravagant, the flashy, the fantasy. These pictures are a memento to that dream."

Survivors include his wife of 28 years, Elisabeth Benizri, and their son Orson, who was named after filmmaker Orson Welles.

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