The Exhibiton — Peter Kennard: A Very Unofficial War Artist, Imperial War Museum, London
The Film — Zygosis: John Heartfield and the Political Image by Gavin Hodge & Tim Morrison (1991)
The images in this archival exhibition, Peter Kennard: A Very Unofficial War Artist, represent a radical perspective on the history of the last 70 years, from the ending of the Second world War to the present crises in the Middle East. I found it difficult to view the show through anything other than the prism of my own life and career.
In an earlier incarnation I was a teacher of history, at a time when teaching was a more autonomous activity than it is now, with neither national curriculum nor performance tables to worry about, when the best teaching was creative and spontaneous, a response to the particularity of the moment rather than the generality of bureaucratic diktat; a bit amateurish, perhaps, but with a sense of personal commitment and social responsibility, producing, if you were lucky, inspired teaching by enthusiastic “educators” in the classical sense of the word, opening up the minds of students by encouraging enquiry and critical thinking; the sort of teaching, I suspect, that the heir to the British throne, in his infamous black spider memos, referred to disparagingly as “fashionable”.
One of my first lessons was planned for a class of fourteen-year-olds. As far as I can recall (the lesson was never taught) it was about the background to the Industrial Revolution. The date of the lesson was Monday, 25th November, 1963. The assassination of president John F Kennedy three days before led to a rapid change of plan! I like to think that Peter Kennard, age 14, was a pupil in that class.
The works in the show were begun by Kennard as a student at the Slade School of Art in 1968, a year of student protest and the year of his own political awakening. They deal with events from 1945 (a year of contradiction, with the founding of the UN followed, three months later, by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) through to the Iraq war and the continuing, and consequential violence in the Middle East, with an up-to-date focus on Palestine and Syria.
Accompanying the political narrative are works that reflect on broader humanitarian issues: child poverty, hunger, torture, human rights abuses, arms production and the arms race.
Going round the show, it was a brief glimpse of a Polish Solidarity Trade Union poster, something that I had not seen for some years, that led me to link the works as a whole to my experiences in teaching.
I was in Cracow in 1981, on a UNESCO educational visa, just months before the imposition of General Jaruzelski’s military dictatorship,set up in opposition to the pro-democracy movement led by the union leader, Lech Walesa.
The poster was as iconic then as any commercial logo today, though the interest of the UK in events in Poland was soon overtaken by the outbreak of the Falklands/Malvinas War (dubbed The War of Thatcher’s Face) in 1982, and a cluster of other events, including the deployment of Cruise missiles in Britain in 1983, the miners’ strike in 1984, with its shades of an Orwell!ian dystopia, and a general increase in tension between East and West in the Cold War, resulting in the Thatcher government publishing the (laughably impractical) pamphlet “Protect and Survive”, with its exhortations to cover windows with brown paper and to hide under the table once the four minute warning had sounded.
It was quickly lampooned by CND’s “Protest and Survive” rejoinder, and by Kennard’s photomontage, also called Protect and Survive (1980) a savage satire on the stupefying stupidity of the government’s propaganda. It featured a skeleton reading the original pamphlet.
The early eighties provided a field of seemingly endless fertility for Kennard”s creative polemics, culminating in his epochal transposition of Constable’s Haywain (1982, depicted at top), the wain bristling with cruise missiles, and Target London (1983) a set of 18 civil defence posters, commissioned by London’s left-wing mayor, Ken Livingstone, including one called Most Central Hospitals will be Destroyed. The intention was to show the real effects of a nuclear attack and the dangers inherent in the government’s refusal to give up its nuclear arsenal.
The period was also a time when the ground-breaking Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University was establishing a high profile for itself under Professor Paul Rogers (still teaching today, in his early seventies) and peace studies was finding a place in schools, albeit outside the national curriculum and the ever-growing examination structure (and more likely to be proscribed than prescribed, with articles in the national press concerning “War over Peace in the Classroom”; and the EU — then known as the EEC — providing grants for the teaching of peace studies when the government was contemplating a ban; a not uncommon example of the rift between the Tory right and Europe).
Kennard’s work cropped up regularly in teaching material, co-oped from national newspapers and magazines like The New Statesman and the Daily Mirror, or straight from such organisations as CND, the Centre for Peace Studies and various Local (left-wing) Authorities.
My take on the show was also coloured by a familiarity with the work of the German, communist artist, John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891). A pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon, he devised and developed the medium of photomontage as a powerful tool against the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 20s and 30s.
The documentary film, Zygosis: John Heartfield and the Political Image, 1991, places Heartfield’s work in its political context. A teaching aid from the 1990s, it can be viewed today on YouTube. The brilliance of Heartfield’s creative output and the potency of his political message, is matched by Kennard, whose work in this show, commencing in 1968, coincides with the year of Heartfield’s death — an unexpected though apposite continuity.
Zygosis comes from the Greek for yoking together and is used in biology to describe the combination of elements to produce new compounds. In the context of photomontage it’s the mix of words and images, mass media and art, the over-laying of photographs, producing, in the case of both Heartfield and Kennard, powerful political messages.
Whilst not part of any wider movement (unlike Heartfield who, together with artists like Hannah Hoch and George Grosz, was a founder member of the Berlin Dadaists during the First World War) Kennard’s work, longevity and influence very much echo the work of his German antecedent, the arc of their careers encompassing important periods of economic, political and military upheaval and anguish over the past hundred years, their work a radical history of dissent, each engaged in a battle for the control of information.
Using the power of the transposed image, they placed familiar icons from the mass media in challenging political contexts to combat the powerful establishments that used photography and other media as “a terrible weapon against the truth” (Bertolt Brecht), the ubiquity of Heartfield’s Swastikas matched by Kennard’s missiles.
Perhaps the best known of Kennard’s work is the montage of a Tony Blair selfie placed in front of a war-torn landscape from some battleground in Iraq. Completed with his collaborator, Cat Phillipps, Photo Op, 2005, has appeared on book covers and in the pages of the British Medical Journal and was used by the Stop the War movement. Kennard has made it clear that the work was intended to change events not merely to protest against them.
In his brief address at the opening of his IWM exhibition Kennard made clear his continuing passion to change the world. In references to the catalogue of the exhibition and especially his Afterword/The N00se of N0ghts, he confronted his audience with the horror of statistics: the $7.3 trillion (that’s with eleven noughts) that the USA has spent on military activity in the Middle East over the last forty years contributing to the deaths of an unknown number of civilians whose deaths are not recorded; the £130 billion (that’s with ten noughts) needed to replace the UK Trident nuclear force; set against the 3.1 million children dying each year from malnutrition and the $3.2 billion that would feed the 66 million world-wide suffering from hunger. He challenged us all to do something about it.
Then, with his final words, he invited his guests to storm parliament, but not before, wine glasses in hand, we all went off to view his work; to witness a warning from history, a lesson in radical protest – Art in the service of humanity.
Terry Fairman is the author of Leviathan and the Pilot Fish, which attempts to argue the value and legitimacy of politically inspired art.