Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist at the Imperial War Museum, London, until 30 May 2016.
Most people who have been active politically on the left will be familiar with the striking simple graphics and photomontage of Peter Kennard. They have featured over the past four decades in campaigns against nuclear disarmament, the privatisation of British Telecoms, in defence of the Greater London Council, against the first and second Iraq Wars.
His work has illustrated posters, leaflets, newspapers and magazine articles, using simple contrasts to illuminate and focus attention on the horrors of war, dictatorships and ruthless capitalist exploitation.
As I walked through the rooms of the retrospective exhibition of his work at the Imperial War Museum I couldn’t believe that I knew most of the images on display yet had not until then known his name. I imagine the same will be true of many. Millions will be familiar with his image of a trident nuclear missile bent and broken in a clenched human fist, or of Photo Op (2005) – made in collaboration with Cat Phillipps – a memorable response to the second Iraq war, showing a grinning Tony Blair taking a selfie against the background of a bomb explosion
Whether you know his work or not, this is an exhibition you should see. It will remind you of most of the political battles over the past 45 years or so – from the Vietnam War to the continued obscenity of world poverty and the proliferation of deadly weaponry – and demonstrate how art can be used to challenge the mighty and their status quo.
Kennard’s political artistic engagement was a product of 1968 – a year of tumultuous events: war, revolt, student rebellion, civil liberties protests and brutal repression.
Kennard explains, “I began my working life as a painter, but after those turbulent student protests of 1968 I wanted to find a medium that could relate to my work as an artist to my activism. At that time paint as a medium felt to me too weighed down with art history, and I moved into more photo-based work. As I became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, photomontage enabled me – by using photos of the world events as they actually happened – to make work that could respond directly.”
The work on show here clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of his method. They reveal his debt to the photomontage pioneered by German communist artist John Heartfield in the 1930s in response to the rise and coming to power of the Nazis.
In the entrance to the exhibition stand six huge oblong paintings from 2003-04 in response the Iraq invasion of 2003. They combine digital prints worked over with oil paint. Under the collective title ‘Decoration’ the ribbons are torn, mangled and tattered American flags supporting, instead of medals, various objects to bring home the horrors of the war such as a soldier’s helmet marked with the number of kills, and a hooded figure to remind us of the abuse at Abu Graib prison.
In the second room are works from 1968 – 72, his STOP montage series. Here photographs of contemporary events are reduced to silhouettes and even more abstract shapes to produce a magnified, distorted and distancing effect from the events – police and army attacks on protestors, soldiers in war. Black on tope backgrounds show in stark contrast rifles, helmeted soldiers, police batons, crowds, grimaces. In some the image is clear. In others completely abstract, conveying a violence and bleakness to the scene.
In the third room are Kennard’s political posters – hundreds of them, demonstrating the range of issues and organisations who used his skill to put across their message. “Hands off Telephones”, “Public Service not Private Profit” make simple but effective propaganda against privatisation. We see his montage illustrations in Workers Press, the Guardian and New Statesman, tackling the issue of repression in Northern Ireland, the Chile coup and ensuing repression, nuclear disarmament, the first Gulf War through to the anti-G8 protests in 2013. This latter event provoked a series of powerful images conveying the heavy police presence to protect the world’s powerful discussing profits and arms.
His work for the GLC reminds us of the early 80s when many local authorities called for an end to nuclear weaponry and championed other left-wing causes. There are adverts here for many GLC exhibitions, plays and conferences. Another poster uses the missile in a fist image to advertise a Labour Party demonstration “Nuclear Arms No, Peace Yes”. How times change. The room ends with Kennard’s well-known recasting of Constable’s Haywain as a cruise missile launcher, yet another protest at the US nuclear missile bases in the UK.
Room four features Kennard’s return to painting, with a contemplative series of human Faces (2002-03), so dark as to make the features barely discernable. One, shows the nostrils and reminded me of John Heartfield’s use of the skull.
With our senses being bombarded from every direction with photomontage in the service of the commodity, Kennard may have seen a reduced impact in its use to as a weapon for political change. But the final room of the exhibit is an installation called Boardroom featuring many of his images and themes. These are sharpened by their juxtaposition to a series of startling figures revealing the continued inequality and grotesque priorities for governments and corporate executives in this perverse world. Did you know that 262 million people were killed by their own governments in the 20th century? Or that 805 million (1 in 9) do not have enough food to lead a healthy life?
It may seem strange that this exhibition of such a committed anti-war artist is housed at the Imperial War Museum but it is to the museum’s credit that it has long recognised Kennard’s importance, purchasing some of his original work and previously hosting an exhibition of his work in 1990.
As I emerged from the exhibition my eyes were lifted to a giant Harrier jet fighter plane, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, hanging from the roof of the museum in the permanent display.
Many of the images from the exhibition, along with the statistics from Boardroom are contained in a very good book produced by the IWM to coincide with the exhibition.
To quote from Kennard in the Afterword of the exhibition book, “The laces of noughts that run through this book form the noose with which we are killing ourselves and each other. But, as in photomontage, with slight manipulation, these noughts are instead links in a chain – a chain of protestors and resistors refusing to accept the nightmarish calculus we are endlessly told is inevitable”.