As the centenary commemorations for the First World War began last year, it has led to a plethora of war artist exhibitions in London. From Stanley Spencer at Somerset House to the disappointing Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate there has been plenty of material covering many of the wars of the last century. Despite the rather messy re-launch of the new First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum which are a poor use of their incredible material, the one thing the IWM can do is interesting art exhibitions.
Last year the Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War was a high point of the Great War commemorations, containing some of the most fascinating conflict art ever produced. Now political artist Peter Kennard famous for his photo-montages gets a fascinating retrospective that references key moments in the last 50 years, from mass protests to modern day conflict. And few exhibitions have such a powerful opening statement. Entitled Decoration, a number of thin full length panels line the wall each showing a form of military medal but the ribbons made from American and UK flags are shredded and frayed, and instead of some kind of medallion at the bottom, there’s a series of negative war images emphasising the real cost of fighting and the meaninglessness of awarding a sanitised medal to obscure what really happened. From debris to a man being tortured with his head in a sack, from a bandaged and bleeding head to a ghostly face, these images make a startling impression, and one that shouts about the futility of war from the start.
Kennard’s most recognisable images were used for posters, badges and the front of magazines particularly in the 70s and 80s where threats of nuclear war in particular were at their height. Interestingly the IWM displays these on wooden panels that you can flip through, much as you would flip through the music posters in HMV, and it’s a useful space-saving initiative for a small gallery. But this doesn’t make Kennard’s message any less stark, as you see his montages of destruction and danger. Some of the most striking include a gas-masked face where the mouth is stuffed with rockets or a skeleton whose head has been replaced by a mushroom cloud explosion of gas. There are more images of specific politicians, artfully lampooning their lack of heart and naturally Thatcher appears in many of these including a particularly blistering attack showing her cutting the tubes of a baby on life support.
However much you agree or disagree with Kennard’s views his skill in the days before photoshop are impressive, repeatedly using skeletons, nuclear weapons and mushroom clouds as symbols of the threat. So, even if you didn’t live through this period his work gives you a strong sense of the tensions and fears both of nuclear fallout and the freedom of politicians to casually stoke the fires that could endanger the population. You see this idea of gambling with people’s lives in a number of images, most significantly in a scene of people playing Blackjack using rockets as stakes in the game. Unsurprisingly Kennard’s later work includes an image of Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of an explosion.
Interestingly some of the most powerful works are quite different and the penultimate room has two groups of work based on the inequality of wealth. In the centre of the room are a number of large easels with the financial page of a newspaper opened on them. Entitled The Reading Room, each double page spread has a portrait photocopied into it of a person clearly poor and starving. It’s hard not to be affected as their large eyes stare directly out at you, a haunting image of western greed. Around the room, using a similar technique, Kennard has created a number of hands photocopied across stock market results, each clawing and tearing at the paper. They look ferocious as these two dimensional hands create three dimensional rips, like a horror movie come to life. Again whatever your own views, there is a searing anger in these pictures which is surprisingly potent and for me the high point of the exhibition.
The final room is a strange one, a sort of retrospective within a retrospective; a new installation summarising some of the most famous images along with some statistics indicating the costs of various wars in the last 50 years. Now the IMW as a research institution should know better than to purvey unverified or at least unreferenced facts to the public – although as part of an ‘art work’ arguably not their fault – but when I visited one of the ‘facts’ had already been redacted (i.e. covered over by tape) and other writers have mentioned further errors. The difficulty of this section is perhaps a lack of perspective on how things have changed in the last 50 years. The political situation of the 1970s and 2000s is quite different and although purely chronologically one has led to the other, more nuance needs to be given to his message that all wars and governments are the same.
In an interview for Time Out Kennard mentioned how interesting it is to have his work shown at the IWM because people don’t come there specifically for the art so it’s a new (and largely younger) audience and the effect the work has on them may be interesting. And that is true to a point – seeing war art in a place dedicated to understand conflict and translating it for those who have never experienced it, creates a level of consistency and approach that is impossible in a standard gallery that inter-mixes war art with other forms. Here the art is positioned in the history of war rather than the history of art, allowing the viewer to make broader connections with other parts of the museum. In practice though I’ve never seen more than a handful of people in the IWM’s art gallery, tourists whip through as if they’ve wandered in by accident and I was even completely alone in there for 5 minutes at a time (not that I’m complaining!). But given that the crowds have now died down in the First World War Galleries, perhaps realising what a poor investment they have been, the IWM should do more to promote the gallery space because the curators really have done an excellent job with both the recent exhibitions there. Kennard’s work is fascinating and this exhibition is a worthy showcase of civilian fears of modern warfare.
Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is at the Imperial War Museum until 30 May 2016. Admission is free.