A five-room retrospective of the 50-year career of Peter Kennard, the English master of political photomontage. It’s free and on for another year, it is inventive and interesting – so no excuses for not checking it out.
Kennard’s career started in 1968 when he was a student and witnessed at first hand the violent confrontations between students and police of that year: here in the UK, in France and America, and behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. He quickly established a fiercely left-wing, polemically accessible visual style based on cutting up and juxtaposing photographic, magazine-style images to create startling montages, which became familiar to readers of the Guardian newspaper or New Statesman magazine in the 1970s, and especially the 1980s.
The exhibition reveals Kennard’s artistic practice to be wide-ranging, including straight oil paintings, photomontage and sculptures. The show proceeds in roughly chronological order, establishing that, not only has he been a prolific creator of images for newsprint, magazines and posters, but conforms to the more traditional artistic practice of creating works grouped by theme or technique.
Still a student reeling from the disorientating political violence of the 1960s, Kennard created a series named STOP. He wanted to produce a more immediate and approachable art and so, in this series, used a photographic enlarger to transfer photographic images to canvas, along with the accompanying ‘dirtying’ marks and blotches, as if the image is the result of a rough, crude, industrial process.
His whole approach is here in embryo: a left-wing, politicised image featuring the police/military, handling sleek shiny weapons – set against an image of the ‘victim’: women, the Irish, beaten-up protesters, the starving millions in the Third World.
It was the late 60s/early 70s, so the writings of Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht were very current, particularly his theory of the ‘alienation effect’ – that people must be moved by a work of art, but not in a lulling way that reinforces their ‘bourgeois’ sensibilities (eg such as the Impressionist works currently on display at the National Gallery); they must be able to see how the work is made, and made to realise that the entire ‘reality’ around them – in the papers and media, TV, adverts and movies – is as constructed, as smoothed and airbrushed as a pop star’s publicity pictures.
Reacting against this smoothness, the radical committed art work must foreground its own constructedness and thus show people that everything is constructed. That is part of the process of helping people to 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.
So the raggedyness of the montages and other works is part of the message.
The 1970s and 1980s
One room is devoted to maybe a hundred of his images – posters on stands and display cases showing scores of covers of New Statesmen magazine or special features in The Guardian, illustrated by Kennard. I recognised loads of them and realised his cutout style was a dominant visual motif of the strife-torn 70s and then the violent and fearful 1980s.
I rather wished the display had separated out the 1970s and the 1980s.
The 1970s were dominated by the power of the trades unions and the feebleness of successive governments, whether Labour led by Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan or Conservative led by Ted Heath, in dealing with them or with the numerous economic shocks which played havoc with the British economy and society at large: namely, the 1973 Oil Crisis which led to the Three-Day-Week and the slow strangled death of the old heavy industries – coal and steel and car- and ship-building – which needed more and more state intervention to compete against younger international rivals.
But if the Left thought it had a strong case and was fighting a tough battle in the 1970s, it turned out to be as nothing compared to the 1980s, when America was led by two-term President Ronald Reagan and Britain rejoiced in the premiership of Mrs Thatcher (1979-1990).
Not only did Mrs T tackle the trades unions head on with punitive and restrictive legislation, but provoked and then won the bitter year-long Miners’ Strike (recently featured in Tate Britain’s Fighting History exhibition), hugely reduced state support for heavy industry, before stumbling across the money-making device of privatising government-owned industries.
Thatcher’s premiership was saved by the patriotic Falklands War and, along with her soul mate across the Atlantic, she engaged in strident and confrontational rhetoric directed at the Soviet Union, notoriously described by Reagan’s speech-writers as ‘the Evil Empire’. The deployment of cruise missiles carrying nuclear warheads to Greenham Common in Berkshire in 1982 led to an escalation in fear among ordinary people, and political activism on the Left against what seemed to many the real and present possibility that there might be some kind of a conflict, whether by accident or design, a Third World War, a nuclear holocaust which would wipe out humanity.
Kennard responded with numerous images which tackled all these issues head-on in vivid cutups and montages – missiles bursting forth from planet earth, from soldiers’ heads, from the bodies of starving Third World children, Mrs Thatcher cutting off life support to a baby, the earth devastated by an oil explosion, people being forced to eat money.
Among the many vibrant, compelling (and bitterly funny) images of the era is his montage of cruise missiles superimposed on Constable’s famous painting of rural idyll, The Haywain.
Looking back, we can see that Mrs Thatcher represented the end of the old Left, as defined in the 1960s, which had dragged itself on across the violent, strife-torn 1970s. A rump fought on throughout the 1980s but against steeper and steeper odds, surviving the defection of the Social Democrats; and then the old ‘hard’ Left was marginalised into insignificance by the election of New Labour in 1997. New Labour was ‘new’ in that it had successfully jettisoned all the policies which made it unelectable throughout the 1980s, but which had also made Labour distinctive (unilateral nuclear disarmament, mass nationalisation of key industries, reinstatement of trade union rights etc).
Protest movements continue to this day, outraged by the West’s wars or the crimes of the bankers, but seem small-scale and ineffective compared to the permanent ongoing sense of crisis and fear, the mass strikes, the marches and street fighting with the police, which I remember from the 1980s.
That era was probably Kennard’s heyday and most prolific period, and this room – festooned with posters, newspaper and magazine covers, all sporting his harsh, brilliant images – brings it all back.
A series of cases containing real copies of financial newspapers, often the Financial Times, onto which Kennard has photocopied his own hand or arm, or those of an obviously emaciated Third World victim, clutching and clawing and tearing the paper. Reminding us of the realities of exploitation – generally far away in developing countries – which underpin our comfortable lifestyles in the West.
Reading Room (1997)
In the same room, a series of cases showing double spread broadsheet newspapers over which Kennard has drawn in charcoal, smudged and blurred, large and haunting faces of the poor and dispossessed.
The wall panel explains it stems in part from memories of going to Paddington library as a boy, where the papers were set up on tall wooden lecterns which helped lend them an aura of authority and permanence. Whereas, of course, the newspapers are man-made like anything else, and tell anything but the truth, generally retailing distracting garbage about celebrities or validating the behaviour of big business and politicians as if they know best, as if they are acting in our best interests…
Five of these very big portrait-shaped works open the show dramatically. They are digital prints worked over in oil. Inspired by the Gulf War they depict campaign medals and ribbons, the ribbons made from the tattered flags of the UK and US and the medals themselves icons of death and destruction, such as shattered bloody helmets, or the hooded body of an Iraqi ‘prisoner’.
It will be seen from Newspaper, Reading Room and Decoration that Kennard’s art incorporates a lot more than the photomontages which made him famous. Face is another departure, a series of medium size canvases, very dark, in which you can just about make out the lineaments of human faces, portraits almost buried in the gloom and – as with victims everywhere – eerily depicted without mouths.
The fifth and final room is small and comprises one work, the installation Boardroom, festooned with images and posters pinned to the wall and hanging from protruding supports, as well as the business cards or logos of the world’s great multinational corporations, while the handrail around the room is covered with ‘shocking’ statistics, designed to outrage us, galvanise us, inspire us to rise up and overthrow this wicked, militaristic and greedy society. (See photo at the end of this post)
Heartfield – Kennard – Banksy
Having studied 1930s politics and art at school then at university I was fairly familiar with the photomontages of John Heartfield, born Helmut Herzfeld, a radical artist active between the wars, an early member of the German communist party and the German branch of Dada, an extremely prolific creator of satirical photomontages.
Heartfield fled the Nazis in 1938 and returned to East Germany after the war. Interestingly, his Wikipedia article states:
In 1967, he visited Britain and began preparing a retrospective exhibition of his work, photomontages, which was subsequently completed by his widow Gertrud and the Academy of Arts, Berlin, and shown at the ICA in London in 1969. (Source: Wikipedia)
1969. Just the time Kennard was defining his own artistic practice and approach. Kennard has explained the way the ‘alienation effect’ of photomontage has a vividly political aim:
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.
There is a direct lineage. No Heartfield, no Kennard.
But various people have made a further connection between Kennard’s deliberately populist, accessible practice and the street, anti-art of Banksy – not only in ‘attitude’ but in actual visual style. The screaming face in STOP 30 looks exactly a piece of Banksy graffiti, as does the whole idea of making unexpected juxtapositions, like the rioter throwing flowers, designed to make you ‘think’.
And on the cover of the book of the Kennard exhibition, there is a quote from Banksy: ‘I take my hat off to you Sir.’
No Heartfield, no Kennard.
No Kennard, no Banksy.
I was, probably unfairly, amused to exit the exhibition into the shop and be confronted by the ‘Peter Kennard range: poster £8, book £12.99, T shirt £18.’
It is as if we have to go into a special space to feel our outrage, an Outrage Chamber, to get very irate about the amount the US spends on weapons, the number of people living below the poverty line, the fact that the 85 richest people own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet etc etc and all the other scarifying statistics which fill the Boardroom installation and the exhibition book — and then step out of the Outrage Chamber back into our real lives, where we dilly-dally, wondering whether to buy the book and the poster, whether our rather lefty nephew might like the t-shirt, or whether there’s time for a coffee at the nice new IWM café.
I am still digesting the argument of Gerard DeGroot’s popular history, The Seventies Unplugged which I read a few weeks ago. He argues that the political activities of all types of radical in that decade woefully overestimated the number of people who saw the world like them – ie as a swamp of corporate greed and political oppression requiring comprehensive overthrow – and lamentably underestimated the number of people who actively want an ordered, conventional society with a strong police force, the unions kept in their place, established social and cultural conventions, the possibility of getting a job, buying a house and a car, and the annual holiday in the sun. Most people want normal.
And looking at the nicely laid-out display of Kennard t-shirts and books and posters, all supposedly meant to prompt us towards revolt and rebellion, made me think that even radicals like things more or less the way they are: to camp out in front of banks or march through Whitehall, enjoy a bit of fisticuffs with the cops, and then home for a nice shower and an evening playing on their X-boxes or watching I’m a Celebrity, texting each other on their Samsung phones, posting photos of their radicalism on Facebook.
Kennard’s art is innovative, visually exciting and energising, consistently inventive and his lifelong commitment to a cause is impressive and moving, and his art may well have prompted revelation and politicisation in many of its viewers over the past 40 years, leading them to take up causes, to protest against nuclear weapons, to march against the Iraq War.
But the cruise missiles came to Greenham Common, regardless. Mrs Thatcher was elected three times, destroyed the unions, privatised industry, introduced market forces to the NHS, regardless. Ronald Reagan’s hair-raising rhetoric in the end forced the Soviet Union into bankruptcy, despite all his clever critics. Blair and Bush took us into the Iraq War, regardless of all the photos and t-shirts and posters and marches, despite millions protesting. Because many millions more acquiesced in it or actively supported it.
And who just won the election? The opponents of everything Kennard believes in.
- Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist continues at Imperial War Museum London until 30 May 2016
- Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist
- BBC review by Paul Kerley
- Guardian review by Laura Cumming
- Telegraph interview by Claire Holland
- Telegraph review by Alastair Smart
Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions
- Visions of War Above and Below (May 2015)
- Peter Kennard (May 2015)
- Truth and Memory (September 2014)