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'Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist'
14 May 2015 – 30 May 2016
‘Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist’examines the art and practice of one of Britain’s most important political artists. Kennard’s images have inspired many of today’s politically aware artists, from Mark Wallinger to Banksy. This free exhibition at Imperial War Museum London will be the first major retrospective of his work charting a 50-year career. It features over 200 artworks and related items, including a new art installation, Boardroom, created especially for the exhibition.
During the late 1960s Kennard abandoned painting and sought new forms of expression to bring art and politics together for a wider audience. This desire to make art that spoke to all led him to the medium of photomontage for its ability to show the ‘unrevealed truth’ behind the image. In doing so, he restored the medium’s associations with radical politics, in particular the anti-fascist work of John Heartfield in the 1930s and the Dadaists of the 1920s.
That sense of ripping into an image, unveiling a surface, going through that surface into an unrevealed truth, is at the core of photomontage. I sit in a room with the tools of my trade and try to pummel these pictures into revealing invisible connections.
Heightened cold war tensions and a polarized political discourse in the 1980s saw Kennard’s work attain an early maturity, culminating his transposition of Constable’s Haywain, which he showed carrying the Cruise Missiles that were about to be deployed in Greenham Common. This and other hard-hitting montages articulated fears inherent in British society as the East-West stand-off pushed the world towards nuclear catastrophe. Missiles, armaments and human skulls are all motifs of Kennard’s works, highlighting the injustices within contemporary politics and society.
The exhibition opens with the ‘Decoration’ paintings from 2004. The paintings, which combine digital prints worked over in oil, show ripped and frayed flags and ribbons of British and American medals, with each medallion replaced with a variety of images, from explosions and items of military equipment to the bandaged faces of war victims. Made in direct response to the Iraq War in 2003, the paintings question established notions of military commemoration by the juxtaposition of images showing the human cost of war.
In Kennard’s seminal STOP paintings, begun when he was still an art student, visitors will see the artist’s political awakening. These paintings reference events of the late 1960s such as the Paris student riots, the 'Prague Spring' and anti-Vietnam War protests, and capture the febrile and disorientating atmosphere of the times as the artist experienced them himself as a student activist. The paintings do not just mark the beginning of Kennard's interest in creating politically informed art, but remain an influence on his work in both the themes they address and their formal characteristics.
Visitors will then move into a gallery of the artist’s own devising, reminiscent of an archival store. Here the photomontages that were widely seen in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s can be discovered. Works including Crushed Missile, Haywain with Cruise Missiles and Warhead will also be displayed in their various distributional forms ranging from posters, pamphlets, badges, placards and t-shirts, alongside the original works of art. These items and artworks will underline how Kennard’s art is as reliant on its distribution and manifestation as its concept and creation. The display will also confirm Kennard’s status as an artistic outsider, determined to make work that exists outside the normal channels of the art world and that directly connects with the public.
The fourth gallery will recreate Kennard’s 1997 installation Reading Room. The installation will comprise wooden lecterns, each bearing two photographic images of faces photocopied onto the financial pages of newspapers. These images were worked over by Kennard in charcoal, smudged and blurred as to appear to merge or dissolve into the stock market figures. In this, Reading Room stresses the relentless international presence of the markets, an ever-present fixture regardless of ephemeral local headlines.
The exhibition concludes with Boardroom, a brand new installation in which Kennard will look at the history of war and conflict from the mid-20th century to the present day. He will use many recurrent images from throughout his working life, across the entire gallery space. The images will be juxtaposed with numbers, forming an audit of war both in human and financial cost. Kennard intends this to be an evolving piece and will change the composition of the display at different points throughout the exhibition run.
‘Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist’explores the practice of an artist at the edge of politics, whose work outside of the established art system has come to represent and support Britain’s protest movement.
London SE1 6HZ
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