Thursday, 15 October 2015

Unofficial War Artist: IWM

I have seen the Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, several times with all sorts of people. First chatting around it with colleagues, then alone with a notebook preparing a tour, then as keen mum with my 18 year old son and finally talking and touring through the exhibition with visitors to the IWM.  

Peter Kennard's work is explicitly political. Politics of the left. "He has quite a bit to say about Bush and Blair", I forewarn American visitors. "And we will probably agree with him", they smile at me.

Age 19, as a student at the Slade school of art in 1968, the time of the anti Vietnam War protests, Kennard began to bring art and politics together producing a series of large gelatine prints, STOP. Talking about gelatine prints, a now defunct printing process, elicits a knowing nod from some older visitors.

Kennard took photos from current (at the time) newspapers of political events, and overlaid them with abstract marks. Taking familiar shocking and powerful images and making them unfamiliar and disorientating. Reflecting on this work and remembering those times, American visitors recognise and point out protests that happened back home.

Peter Kennard curated this exhibition alongside IWM curators. He made these boards specially to display an archive of his posters produced for different protest groups and organisations.

The exhibition includes an archive of Kennard's work from the 1970s, filling a whole room. It includes work he did as a student, experiments in sketchbooks, which I'm keen to point out to my newly-started-at-art-college son. "This is work he began at 19, you'll be 19 in 6 months time" I enthuse.

I had been nagging him to see the Peter Kennard exhibition as soon as I had seen it, even promising him the book. Not until, "mum, they (art college) have told us to see that exhibition where you work", did he agree to meet me and see it together.
"It's really good".
Exasperated... "Yes! I knew you'd like it, that's why I said come and see it".
I might be from another generation, but I get it.

Kennard was known for his photo-montages, a process that became associated with protest art. This was pre-digital, requiring scissors, knives and sellotape, prompting both political stirrings and affection for good old craft skills. 

Kennard's work provokes comment, causing visitors to speak their thoughts out loud, sometimes without meaning to.

Particularly this piece from 1982, using Constable's Haywain to comment on the missile base in East Anglia.
"He's a pacifist! But that's against everything the Imperial War Museum stands for! Why is he in an exhibition here?"
I don't think she meant to blurt this out as I was speaking but something just clicked. I explained that the IWM was not here to comment, but it has always been part of its remit to collect art to tell stories of war and conflict.
However, when you put objects in a museum they give off messages, intentionally or otherwise. Putting objects in a museum does kind of give them status that if you'd just left them rusting in the back of a garage they might not otherwise have had. But we all see things differently. For me, that cart looks so fragile under the weight of those cruise missiles. How fragile does life look under the threat of any missile?

Another visitor, "...ahead of his time, he saw that coming, the NHS." This was made in the 1980s.

"Getting the work out into the world and used is as important as its production", says Peter Kennard. Hence we see his work on badges and T-shirts as well as posters and pamphlets. 

What strikes you about Kennard's work is that you don't need a degree in art history to understand it. His images are readable, recognisable. This is not to make less of his work, to say that it is simple, but in fact to make more of his work. He asks questions, challenges the viewer, and gets you to think. In fact Peter Kennard doesn't call himself an artist, but a communicator. Like he says, he has got his "work out into the world", made it readable and understandable. Good communication.  

'Reading Room' is based on Kennards trips to Paddington Library as a child, to read the day's newspapers. People's faces photocopied onto financial pages from newspapers from around the world, unknown faces and stock market figures. A colleague and I find this moving, powerful. The faces are quite beautiful. What impact has the stock market had on their unknown lives? 

On the tour, I ask people to squeeze down a narrow corridor to look at  a series of paintings called 'Face'.

No-one minds the squash, not to contemplate these haunting faces. Faces that merge in and out of darkness, no mouths, no language, mute, therefore universally understood. Sometimes you don't need words.  

The last room in the exhibition has been made specially for it. A kind of mini retrospective of nearly 50 years of work. An installation where Kennard reflects on the financial and human cost of war.

'Boardroom' where Kennard brings us statistics on the handrail.

I spend time with my son reading these statistics. Some are not new.
"I knew that", but it still doesn't lessen the impact.

One visitor comments, "How long has this exhibition been here? He will have to update that now with the refugee crisis, ...perhaps on a daily basis."  

 "...and how many have been used. He should have said that."

This is an exhibition to make you think beyond the work. It has a been a privilege to see it with many different people, to have the opportunity to reflect on it with them and hear what they have to say. Not least was the opportunity to spend time with my 18 year old. It doesn't happen that much anymore, one to one, doing something we both enjoy.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is free and is on at the Imperial War Museum, London until 30 May 2016. Free admission. See the Imperial War Museum website for gallery tours.
Take an 18 year old.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Face of Britain: National Portrait Gallery

Not all learning in museums is about the objects they display. In the museum learning literature it is acknowledged that people sometimes learn, "something new about each other"*. Never, for me, has this been so apparent than when I went with my dad to see Simon Schama's Face of Britain at the National Portrait Gallery. I'm in my late forties, you'd think I know him quite well by now.

As with the Grayson Perry exhibition, 'Who Are You?' at the National Portrait Gallery on last year, which you can read about here, Face of Britain is displayed over all three of the gallery's floors. My dad has been here before, he knows the form, he suggests taking the lift to the top and working our way down (the stairs). "Much easier that way."
Face of Britain looks at portraits and identity with five themes:
Power, Love, Fame, Self and People.


Walking into the room, "that's Cromwell."
"How do you  know?"
"Cromwell, he is so distinctive, rugged, slightly nasty, I just know what he looks like."
I one the other hand, hadn't got a clue.
"Did you do history at school?"
"No, I hated history at school, bad teacher, it all depends on the teacher. I developed my interest in history after school." 
My dad went round the National Portrait Gallery identifying people. I wasn't expecting this, hearing all he knew about history, particularly impressed by him being able to identify Kings and Queens, and in the right order.

'Power', it kind of had to be... I didn't need my dad to tell me this was Margaret Thatcher.

"That makes her look softer than she was"
"...almost vulnerable looking."
"The only time she looked like that was when she was booted out."

This is when he dropped a bombshell. Never assume you know how your closest family vote.
"What! I can't believe it. I always thought you were a ..." I can't tell you how surprised I was.

Thatcher seemed to spark quite a bit of conversation, I couldn't help but overhear.
"Apparently she kept interfering with what the artist was doing."
 "Well that just about sums her up!"

The Queen. A 3D picture, a bit like one of those 3D postcards where things move. I had one where if you looked at it from different angles, giraffes moved their heads from side to side.
" I don't like it, her nose is pronounced too much."
I so wished it was one of those 3D moving pictures and she would open her eyes when stepped from side to side looking at her from different angles. It was not to be, this image was inspired by seeing the queen resting, a quick shut-eye between the official shots.

Here's another Elizabeth, the first.

No resting for her, she has a country to rule, painted under her feet, putting us firmly in our place.


My dad proves to be a mine of information. he doesn't need to read the label to know this is is George, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent.

George, despite his "serial amorous adventures", had one true love, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (Mrs). When he died George was found with her portrait in miniature around his neck.

It was also love that prompted Sir Kenelm Digby to call quickly for Van Dyck to paint Lady Venetia Digby after he found her dead in bed. He lived with this portrait by his side, day and night, but it didn't manage to fully console him.

The "great and the good, ...characters".

Simon Weston, he is part of both our consciousness, memories of the 1980s and the Falklands War. 

Everyday people, from Torquay. It's near where my mum lives, I scan the photos to see if I recognise anywhere. I really don't. But am impressed with this "Torquay fishwife's" 'leg o'mutton' sleeves. What a great jacket.

These photos intrigue me. Surveillance photos of militant suffragettes, taken undercover while they were in prison. Imprisoned for damaging museum artefacts in the British Museum and the National Gallery. Their photos now hang in the National Portrait Gallery. So many questions, not least, how far would I go to stand up for women's rights? I am thankful for these women. 


I pause to take a photo to send to a friend via Facebook. We're playing a game. #GuessWho? 

My dad spots Nelson a mile off. I didn't realise how much of a celebrity Lady Emma Hamilton was. The mistress of one of the most famous people in Britain in the 18th century, she was "London's biggest female celebrity". Many of her portraits were reproduced in etchings to "provide the public with affordable portraits". Etchings, social media, has much changed?


This is the "earliest known oil self-portrait painted in England". It's tiny. Painted whilst inprisoned at the Tower of London, Gerlach Flicke also painted his fellow cellmate, Henry Strangwish, who was in for piracy. 

Frank Auerbach. "very clever scribbles". Despite looking "scribbled", perhaps rushed, Auerbach worked on this painting for six years, continually rubbing bits out. Possibly a testament to that feeling of looking in the mirror and not really being happy at what you see.

Dame Laura Knight in her studio. I love this painting. She's there, hard at work in a life-drawing class, establishing herself as an artist, in a place where previously she had been barred, for being a woman.

David Bomberg, we read, went to the Slade school of art.
"Society of Lithographers, Artists, Designers and Engravers."
"No, not that Slade, the art college. But anyway, how do you know that?"
"My father was a member, a lithographer."
"I didn't know that, I only remember him retired."
"Yes he was a printer, worked in the Caledonian Road, Kings Cross. He was at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1940, getting ready to go to France in the Second World War, when he was told that he was not going because they needed him to be a forger, probably to help with the resistance. I don't know exactly what he worked on as he'd signed the official secrets act and never told his family. I've found all this out since he died."
"He could raw a perfect circle free-hand."
This was my grandfather from an ordinary semi in Wembley. I had no idea. 

Simon Schama tells us that Face of Britain is about identity, portraits, discovering who people are. As well as learning about the illustrious on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, I was thrilled to learn more about my family.

Simon Schama's Face of Britain is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 4th January 2016. Free admission. Details on their website here.  

Did you #GuessWho?

William Shakespeare

*Falk and Dierking, 1992
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