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.

19 comments:

  1. A fascinating exhibition! Thank you for taking us along. xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A pleasure. it's always good to hear from other bloggers. Thanks for taking the time to read & comment.

      Delete
  2. Kennard's acessment of himself as more of a communicator than an artist especially interests me. My bachelor of arts degree in speech-communication and your presentation of Kennard's work leads me to conclude that he is a gifted communicator, an artist! When I am presented with art in visual, written, or auditory form, the greatest work to me is one that draws a sense of understanding the work's message or draws me into discussion about the meaning the work. I don't want to find myself in the crowd tempted not to admit they could see no clothes on the Emperor. Thanks for posting!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely no 'emporer's clothes' with Peter Kennards work. It's a weighty, yet accessible exhibition.

      Delete
  3. What an interesting exhibition Katharine. I have never heard of Peter Kennard, but I will remember him now, especially after a quick Google search. The Hay Wain picture is very powerful, as are those faces. This exhibition would have a profound impact on me, I am sure. thank you for sharing with us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A pleasure. Having read many of your blog posts, I am sure you would love this exhibition.

      Delete
  4. I've only visited London a handful of times, I wish I lived closer so I could get to see some of these great exhibitions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Make a list. One day visit and see as much as you can.

      Delete
  5. Looks fascinating - I'd like to see that. It strikes me that art has to be all about communication - otherwise, what's the point? If the art is inaccessible, surely it has failed. The visitor who suggested that the IWM is somehow anti-pacifist is way off beam - I have never been aware of the museum glorifying war in any way; it's simply shown as it is. A great post - really enjoyed it. By the way, you don't have to be left-wing to disagree with Blair and Bush...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree with you about the visitor's comment. I tried to explain that the museum was not making a stand either way about war, but she wasn't having it.

      Delete
  6. It is so important to share art forms such as this and well done to the IWM to be brave enough to do this. What is the point of obtaining art to raise discussion if it is not to be displayed. This was so interesting and imaginative. I am going to show my daughter your post who is about to start thinking about art college and hopefully take her along to the exhibition in a couple of weeks. Thank you xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this is a brilliant exhibition for teenagers. In half term next week there's a youth event, I could send you details. I can't find it on the website.

      Delete
  7. Interesting. And I wonder what gelatine prints are. They sound kind of nice.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Now you say it, they do sound nice. :)

      Delete
  8. Oooh. This looks interesting. Must send this post to a friend of mine who makes periodic trips to the IWM because she is posting her grandfather's WW1 letters online on the 100 year anniversary they were written and they are housed there. I think she'd like one of her visits to coincide with this.

    ReplyDelete
  9. There should be more people like Peter in the world and more exhibitions like this too.

    ReplyDelete
  10. For some reason your last few posts haven't appeared in my blogroll, so sorry for not commenting. This looks like it was a fascinating exhibition but I suspect it would have upset me. The faces on the financial papers look particularly distressing somehow. The 'PR polish' is interesting (since PR is part of my job).
    I doubt if I'd have chance to see the real thing before it closes - so thanks for the tour.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Oohh I must go and visit this

    ReplyDelete
  12. Amazing art work! And an amazing man. Thank you for the tour.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...