In the introduction to the book ‘Unofficial War Artist’, Richard Slocombe says this about the work of Peter Kennard:
“With a career spanning almost fifty years, Peter Kennard is without doubt Britain’s most important political artist and its leading practitioner of photomontage. His adoption of the medium, in the late 1960s restored an association with radical politics, and drew inspiration from the anti-Nazi montages of John Heartfield in the 1930s. Many of Kennard’s images are now themselves icons of the medium, defining the tenor of protest in recent times and informing the subsequent visual culture of conflict and crisis in modern history.”
Kennard does not define himself as an artist, but as a communicator, with the goal of making work that exists outside of the art world – for him, getting the work out into the world is as important as its production. This often takes the form of fly posters, placards or t-shirts and he is associated with various campaigning groups such as CND and Amnesty International. (Kennard, 2015)
In an interview with Claire Holland, Kennard describes his work as an attempt to “rip apart the smooth, bleached and apparently seamless surface of the media’s presentation of the world and to expose the conflict and grubby reality underneath.” He does not define the work as propaganda as his aim is not to tell people what to think but to “make an image that enables people to think in a different way from the stuff they are shown every day.”
STOP series (1968-1973):
This series was started as he studied at Slade School of Art and represents Kennard’s political awakening which was galvanised by the student insurrections of 1968. It also marks his move away from painting towards photography – something that was driven by the desire to bring art and politics to a wider audience and the realisation that photography was not burdened with the same art historical associations as painting. The 31 works combine images of contemporary events overlayed with acetate and abstract marks. Kennard’s aim was to recreate the disorientating atmosphere of activism and was influenced by Brecht’s theory of Verfremdungseffekt (‘distancing effect’.)
Kennard describes how becoming involved in the anti-Vietnam movement led to his transition from making non political paintings to work that related to his activism. Photomontage enabled him, through the appropriation of news photographs, to make work that responded directly to world events:
“It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing, but living in London and getting involved in activism…I saw that art could be part of that; it needn’t be removed. And I was looking for different way of working, to make work that wasn’t part of the art market, that wasn’t commercial in that way.” (Holland, s.d.)
This work, made predominately in the 1980s amidst the background of cold war tension and fear of imminent nuclear war, was often produced for CND. The series features Kennard’s most famous image, ‘Haywain with Cruise Missiles’ (1980) in which Constable’s idyllic ‘Haywain’ is appropriated and disrupted by the addition of American Cruise missiles – Kennard’s response to their deployment in Britain. Kennard describes how the image became widely reproduced around the world over the years and that his favourite use is printed simply as a postcard without text. This was something that “infiltrated the social fabric in unexpected ways” with shop owners reporting that unsuspecting tourists often bought them without noticing the missiles – the idea of these finding there way into unsuspecting middle-American households being a particularly subtle subversion. (Campany, 2013: 197)
Ken Livingston, at the time leader of the Greater London Council, commissioned Kennard in 1983 to produce work that would declare London a ‘nuclear free zone’. ‘Target London’ directly satirised government ‘Protect and Survive’ public information literature of the time by facing head on into the absurd nature of this advice. (See – Imperial War Museum Website – 6 Powerful Protest Posters by Peter Kennard.)
Kennard saw this work as “a sort of visual toolbox for activists” and he encouraged the images to be used in different ways such as putting them on banners, posters, badges or t-shirts:
“If you make political work it’s no good it sitting in the studio or just going into galleries, the point os to get it out to the general public…Removing it from the confines of high art and into popular culture is what the work is about.” (Holland, s.d.)
Photo Op (2005):
This series, made in collaboration with artist Cat Phillips (as kennardphillips) is a response to the Blair administrations controversial policy in Iraq. Digital, rather than the cut and paste techniques that exemplifies Kennard’s other montage work, is used to create images that are both convincing and outlandish, such as Tony Blair taking a selfie against a background of inferno.
Bromwich, K. (2018) Peter Kennard’s potent anti-war images for the CND. The Guardian, 1st September 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2018/sep/01/peter-kennard-potent-anti-war-images-for-the-cnd
Campany, D. (2013) Art and Photography. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cumming, L. (2015) Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist review – the king of political montage. The Guardian, 17th May 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/17/peter-kennard-unofficial-war-artist-review
Douglas, N. (2011) Beyond Words. Eye Magazine. Available at: http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/beyond-words
Fiegel, L. (2017) ‘Four minute warning: time to boil your last egg’ – 100 years of anti-war protests. The Guardian, 17th May 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/17/made-for-marching-the-art-of-anti-war-protest
Holland, C. (s.d.) Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist. The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11583917/Peter-Kennard-Unofficial-War-Artist.html
Jones, J. (2013) The Tony Blair ‘selfie’ Photo Op will have a place in history. The Guardian, 15th October 2013. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/15/tony-blair-selfie-photo-op-imperial-war-museum
Jones, J. (2015) Peter Kennard review – a thrillingly grotesque montage of modern times. The Guardian, 12th May 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/12/peter-kennard-review-imperial-war-museum
Kennard, P. and Phillips, C. (2013) A response from Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips: censorship is flourishing in our “public spaces.” New Statesman, 22nd October 2013. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/art-and-design/2013/10/response-peter-kennard-and-cat-phillips-censorship-flourishing-our-public-spa [accessed 17th January 2019]
Kennard, P. (2015) Unofficial war artist. London: IWM.
Ratcliffe, R. (2018) Peter Kennard: cut and paste. Big Issue North. Available at: https://www.bigissuenorth.com/features/2018/07/peter-kennard-cut-paste/
Slocombe, R. (2015) Protest and survive: why Peter Kennard is political dynamite. The Guardian, 1st May 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/01/blair-selfie-peter-kennard-political-dynamite