Showing at Woodbury House in London is The Return of The Rat — the first UK exhibition by iconic French street artist Blek le Rat (born Xavier Prou) in over a decade.
Having risen to prominence in the 80s, after he began spraying stencil artworks of rats around his home city of Paris, Prou went on to become an influential figure in the street art scene, inspiring everyone from Banksy to Swoon to Logan Hicks. Bansky is even quoted as saying: “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier.”
Prou, of course, has his own artistic influences and has drawn heavily on one in particular for this latest exhibition — the late Canadian artist Richard Hambleton, who has long been a source of inspiration for the 72-year-old Parisian. “I wanted to make a tribute to my favourite street artist,” says Prou. “He was the first graphic artist to export his work abroad and, after seeing it in Paris in 1983, he became a big inspiration for me.”
Within the 37 works that are currently on show at Woodbury House is a large scale triptych that memorialises the figure of Hambleton and serves as testament to his enduring influence on Prou’s practice. “I really felt, when I was working, that my hand was guided by Richard,” he adds. “His spirit was behind me.”
Elsewhere are pieces that symbolise the artist’s thoughts on the current state of the world, including an artwork titled Society’s Time Bomb and one titled The Red Leopard, both of which hint at an impending state of crisis and the nearing of what Prou refers to as “the third world war”. As ever, his trademark symbol of the rat is also present in the collection, appearing as a central figure within several of the pieces, where it can be seen in turn holding a gun, a microphone, and a spray can.
Commenting on the enduring presence of the rat within his work, Prou explains, “I love rats. I have studied their lives, they are incredible. They are the only ‘free’ animal in the city – they can help each other, can tell the time, and are [supposedly] the only thing that will survive after the Great Flood.”
Prou hopes these works can help to inspire a new generation of street artists, who will go on to leave their own mark on the world. In fact, he eagerly anticipates the new directions the genre will go in as emerging figures begin to drive it. “I think street art will be the defining art movement of the 21st century, and I believe this is just the beginning,” he says. “It will evolve, and we are part of that evolution.”
The Return of the Rat is on display at Woodbury House in London until April 12; woodburyhouseart.com