Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist
Imperial War Museum
Reviewed by Jane Kelly
“The camera… on the one hand extends our comprehension of the necessities that rule our lives; on the other, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action”. Walter Benjamin, 1930
All art is, of course political. Artists of the Italian Renaissance understood this well – their work was made according to written contracts documenting both subject matter and materials, timescale for the making and how much was the hand of the named artist –giving the patron control over its production. But with the development of European modernism, from the mid-nineteenth century on, artists insisted on their independence and increasingly visual art, especially painting, was associated with the individualism of the artist; his or her distinct style as opposed to any other maker of images. Overtly political art was frowned on as a diversion from art’s true character.
Part of this, but only part, resulted from the development of photography. The camera’s apparent capacity to capture reality by technical means led painters to stress colour (which early photography could not do) and a move away from realism. And it is this apparent character of photography, its realism, that has remained part of our understanding of photography ever since. “It must have been like that, the camera never lies.” Sometimes this can be useful, in documenting police brutality for example, especially now that mobile phones can take pictures too.
But throughout the history of photography this link with reality has been contested. From the choice of subject to the manipulation of the photographic image, many argue that photographs are constructed, just as much as paintings and prints. In the 1920s and ‘30s artists associated with the Dada movement in Germany such as Hannah Hoch and later John Heartfield in his anti-Nazi work, manipulated their images to reveal the constructed nature of imagery as well as the reality of Nazism.
The exhibition of Peter Kennard’s work at the Imperial War Museum, on for a year until 30 May 2016, reveals both the influence of Heartfield’s photomontages on his work, the collision of two unrelated objects or people, often in an inappropriate environment, as well as his insistence on the constructed nature of his art.
“Montage is inherently about linking things which are seen as being separate but are in fact inextricably bound up together. So the point of using montage is to show the causes of things rather than just the results.”
“Art is always a construction, in our times constructed by the middle class to push the idea that art is necessarily diminished by being directly political. Of course this is an argument to maintain the status quo and their own position in the pecking order.”
Peter Kennard Interview with Shirley Reid, 1995
And this not simply to make disorienting and thought-provoking images, but to remind us that society as well is constructed.
“…radical, committed art work must foreground its own constructedness and thus show people that everything is constructed. For that is part of the process of making people realise that society doesn’t need to be this way. This society is a construction and it could be constructed differently, more fairly and justly, without exploiters and exploited, without the grotesque inequalities in wealth and life experiences which capitalist society says, via every channel available, are sad and regrettable but, alas, unchangeable. It is not unchangeable. There are alternatives. We don’t have to live this way.” Peter Kennard, astrofella.wordpress.com
His most famous works expressing these ideas were made in collaboration with CND in the 1970s and 80s such as his version of Constable’s ‘Haywain’, ‘Haywain with missiles’ (1982) the wain carrying Cruise missiles to Greenham Common, and ‘Protect and Survive’, (1981) an ironic image of a skull reading the infamous government pamphlet describing what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. With diagrams of how to build a ‘fall-out room’ with an ‘inner refuge’, it suggests that you could survive the nuclear fall-out, as long as you’ve built yourself these hideaways. It was greeted with derision as far as I remember, with very few people taking it seriously.
Kennard is widely described as a ‘pacifist’ artist but this does not do his work justice, he is anti-war, but this does not make him a pacifist, he is opposed to wars conducted in the name of imperialism or capitalism, mostly destroying peoples and countries far from Europe or the US and his opposition to the Iraq war led him to make further images used by Stop the War Coalition.
The exhibition follows this anti-war stance from the war in Vietnam in the 1960s to the war against Iraq in 2003-4. More recent work like ‘Boardroom’ shows the financial and human cost of wars, is also included.
It’s an important exhibition of one of the few consistently political artists in Britain and what’s more it’s free.