For anyone lucky enough to live in London, or be able to visit, thanks to the Imperial War Museum you have a full year to be inspired by a fifty-year retrospective of Peter Kennard’s work, under the fitting title of Unofficial War Artist.
Like many of my parents’ generation, Kennard was radicalised by opposition to the Vietnam War and the student uprisings of Paris 1968. Where he parts company with perhaps the majority of his flower power peers is that half a century later Peter Kennard is still using art to campaign for peace and against inequality.
Kennard’s chosen medium for much of his career has been photomontage. Unlike most artists, his clever, usually dark, works have adorned placards, illustrated editorials and adorned the covers of political journals, as well as being exhibited in galleries. The Imperial War Museum has them all, from Haywain with Cruise Missiles (taking Constables pastoral English scene and inserting nukes in a cart, in opposition to Britain’s harbouring of US inter-continental ballistics), toTanks into Tractors, and his iconic images of missiles being crushed by the CND peace symbol.
Unofficial War Artist also has many works I haven’t seen before, particularly the Newspaper sequence from 1994, which depicts the artists hand clawing at stock market prices in the Financial Times, expressing, according to the gallery description, “the artist’s anger and frustration at his inability to penetrate the truth beyond the facade of corporate messages, official reports and market statistics.”
It also includes the disturbing Decoration paintings from 2004, which I first saw at London City Hall during the Iraq invasion, where the metallic glory of military medals are replaced with images of the misery and dehumanisation associated with war.
Unlike the political-grafitti of younger artists clearly inspired by Peter Kennard, particularly Banksy, Unofficial War Artist is not an exhibition for laughs, and yet I came out uplifted by the sheer integrity of an artist who for five decades has stuck to his beliefs and used his incisive wit and imagination to further the causes of peace and equity. Stirring stuff.