Monday, 11 April 2016

Protest and survive.

Peter Kennard's Wikipedia entry contains glowing reference from Naomi Klein, John Berger, and Banksy so it won't come as any surprise that his current retrospective at the Imperial War Museum doesn't serve any jingoistic flag waving ends. Quite the opposite.

His career begins, as does the exhbition, in 1968. It was during that year of worldwide revolt that the young painter, influenced by Francis Bacon, Giacometti, Goya, and Rembrandt abandoned his brushes for photomontage. There he sought inspiration in the Dadaists and the anti-Nazi collage work of John Heartfield.

That same year, whilst still studying at the Slade school of art, saw his first major work. Stop is a collection of borderline abstractions using paper and magazine photos of the Vietnam war, Prague spring, and the student riots in Paris.

This leads us to a room crammed with archival material of Kennard's. Commenting either directly, or obtusely, on issues like the Chilean junta (and the West's role in keeping it in power), Cold War tensions, Apartheid, and the divisive policies of Margaret Thatcher.

There are illustrations from The Guardian, New Statesman, and New Scientist and examples of the kind of work he offered up to the GLC and CND. His anti-Murdoch, anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist, pro-Solidarnosc stance was captured by front pages for those publications, Stop the War posters, and playful, but hard hitting montages juxtaposing scenes both idyllic and dystopian. The most notorious example being his reimagining of Constable's Haywain.

At the end of the Cold War he started to address the New World Order while, at the same time, moving into three dimensional works. 1997's Reading Room ponders the global power of finance.

Smudged, blurred, charcoal faces rendered indstinct stand on old library style lecterns as if to emphasise the individual's powerlessness and loss of self when confronted by the might of the markets.

Equally anonymous though far more contemplative is the Face series from 2002-2003. It's a surprise about turn for Kennard to create something so personal. He claimed an urge to reconnect with the human form and, after so much time spent observing the worst excesses of human nature, who could blame him? That he did so very much on his own terms is testament to his confidence as an artist.

The chief selling point of this exhibition, which is free anyway by the way, is last year's Boardroom installation created especially for the Imperial War Museum and this show. A personal reflection of five decades of conflict from Vietnam to Iraq.

The entire room is full of suspended images from events and wars familiar to us all. Interspersed amongst them are glass panels bearing statistics that reveal current levels of arms sales and expenditure and the extent of poverty in today's world. It's mind-boggling, depressing, and enlightening. In that it is typical of the man and his vision.

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