Peter Kennard; unofficial war artist

Posted on August 10, 2015

For anyone involved in the peace movement, especially CND since the early 1980’s as I have been, Peter Kennard is a familiar name. And his photomontage posters on all aspects of peace, war and conflict are even more familiar. Think Constable’s Haywain, loaded with a delivery of Cruise Missiles heading for Greenham Common, (‘Haywain with Cruise Missiles’ 1981) the skeleton reading ‘Protect and Survive’ or that Pershing missile sliced in half by a CND symbol – all Kennard, and now a part of people’s visual grammar of a period of mass protests across Europe against the excesses of the Cold War.
Kennard has been a political artist since the late 1960’s, and his work since the 1980’s when I first became conscious of it, has continued with equally arresting images. Think of that ‘selfie’ of a grinning Tony Blair in Iraq, the country going up in flames behind him (‘Photo op’ 2005). Kennard has been prolific for decades and his commitment and integrity have remained undimmed, something that this exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) strikingly chronicles. Even to someone like myself, the proud possessor of at least a dozen of his posters from those heady protest days, it is something of a revelation to get a chance to see the range and depth of his work all in one place.
Despite the ‘Imperial’ in its title, the IWM has a tradition of staging exhibitions which neither glory war nor imperialism and in his introduction to the exhibition IWM senior curator Richard Slocombe makes the point that the museum has had a long association with Kennard, stretching back over 30 years which recognises ’… Kennard’s importance as an artist and commentator on the major conflicts of the day. His works unerring ability to command the zeitgeist and resonate with many of the British public has seen it actively collected by the Department of Art [at the IWM]’.
‘Unofficial War Artist’ is essentially a lifetime retrospective and as such becomes a gallery of recent British history: CND, Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League, 7:84, Stop the War Coalition, right up to the war in Afghanistan. It is all rather shocking, and a forceful reminder of how little has changed. According to Slocombe ‘the fall of the Berlin Wall gave Kennard, like many, cause for hope. However the emergence of a new capitalistic global hegemony – the so-called ‘new world order’ quickly dampened this initial optimism.’
There are many striking images in the exhibition but Kennard pulls out one in particular, a group of gamblers around a table stacked with nuclear missiles juxtaposed with the numbers 17,27,0. 17,270 was the number of known nuclear weapons in the world in 2013. The gamblers around the card table are gambling with extinction. The exhibition and accompanying book are littered with such statistics, mostly figures with lots of zeroes. As Kennard puts it ‘The laces of noughts…form the noose with which we are killing ourselves and each other. But in photomontage with slight manipulation, these noughts are instead linked in a chain – a chain of protestors and resistors refusing to accept the nightmarish calculus we are endlessly told is inevitable.’

‘Peter Kennard: Unofficial War artist’ is on at the Imperial War Museum until 30 May 2016.

This article first appeared as a blog for the Marjan Centre for the study of conflict and conservation, War Studies Dept, Kings College London, in August 2015