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Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist

23 August 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

The IWM London has now welcomed over one million visitors since its revamp in 2014, for the centenary of World War One. The Museum is a rich resource on the complexities of war, peace and international relations. One of the mediums for telling these stories is Art and Photography, in a series of changing temporary exhibitions. London Calling headed down there, to its latest exhibition, a retrospective of artist Peter Kennard.

This major retrospective examines the work of artist and political activist Peter Kennard over his 50-year career. He is known for his striking images created using photomontage, and for engaging with issues around war, politics, human rights and protest. IWM London is the perfect place to exhibit Peter Kennard, because his art acts as a mirror to explore the most significant wars and political moments since World War Two, and provides interesting comparison to the narrative presented in the Museum’s permanent galleries.

To say war was Kennard’s inspiration feels insensitive; rather, it was his motivation, to use art for a different reflection on war. Now, his use of photomontage subverts the global media offering, offering an alternative voice. But it is easy to forget that war reporting didn’t always have the immediacy it has now. War photographers were more important; the images produced were fewer, more iconic and better known. Kennard’s work was far more subversive when he began his career. Equally, Kennard’s use of photography is not particularly radical in artistic terms now, but it was then, a deliberate choice because as Kennard says ‘it wasn’t burdened with similar art historical associations’.

The exhibition opens with Decoration, a display of six vertical canvases, which explore military decorations, and honours handed out in war. Instead of medals, there are images of dead and wounded civilians and hooded captives, hanging from the end of singed and threadbare British and American flags. These are powerful images, and politically still relevant, drawing new audiences in to Kennard’s work with striking messages about Britain’s near contemporary foreign policy.

It then takes you right back to the beginning of Kennard’s career, with his first political series, STOP, created in the late 60s from a series of iconic photographs of contemporary political situations. The photos he used come from anti-Vietnam War protests, Paris student riots and the ‘Prague Spring’, reflecting on the media coverage these events received in the UK. You can see through the exhibition how the issues that were motivating people to protest changed, especially as it goes right up to the present day. Many visitors will remember these protests, and some will have been on them.

Another room, Archive, which Kennard himself helped to create, shows the breadth of his work, and how he has brought his art to a wider audience. For Kennard, being an artist isn’t just about producing his art, but sharing it, and sharing the message with as many people as possible. There are leaflets, pamphlets, badges and t-shirts associated with campaigns like CND, and illustrations in major newspapers. Archive shows Kennard didn’t simply respond to major political events and protests, but was part of them. It also shows the breadth of his political activism from the 70s, right through to the present. Nelson Mandela’s face appears in one piece, commenting on apartheid and racial segregation. The exhibition, and his work, doesn’t just focus on war, but on pacifism, human rights, poverty and more.

The final room is dedicated to a new piece, Boardroom, created for the exhibition. It explores a turbulent half-century of conflict from the 1960s to the present. It reflects on the Vietnam War, Cold War and Iraq War, but also on his own career, on his use of certain iconic images. The images are contrasted with numbers and statistics, showing an audit of war in human and financial terms. The piece will evolve and change throughout the exhibition’s duration. The exhibition will be on for a full year, plenty of time for Kennard to respond to political events both in the UK and around the world.

This exhibition is powerful, and apt too. It reflects on the span of Kennard’s career, and so 50 years of war too. When Kennard first got involved in protests, the period was defined by the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and memories of the devastation of World War Two, including the terrible atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagisaki, which were commemorated last week on the 70th anniversary.

As Kennard’s career goes on, and he continues to use iconic media images, wars around the world continue to provide those images. The endurance of war sees no end, and the exhibition can feel more than a little bleak. But work like Kennard’s constantly reminds viewers and audiences to question media depictions, and remember the realities of war that lie behind statistics and propaganda.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is on until May 2016 and is free. For more information on this, and other temporary exhibitions, please see the website.

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