50 years of Peter Kennard’s Visual Dissent
A new monograph published by Pluto Press, Visual Dissent, celebrates the radical photomontages of Peter Kennard, Professor of Political Art at the RCA. Over the last 50 years Kennard’s work has been seen in galleries, newspapers, magazines and on the streets in protests. Through his uncompromising and hard hitting visual approach, he has consistently tackled political issues head on, with urgency and immediacy.
Kennard sites the anti-war protests in 1968 as a political awakening that led him to abandon painting in favour of using found imagery to create photomontages with a more pointed and direct political commentary. ‘The question of how to reach as large and varied an audience as possible is as vital to me as the work I make’ Kennard writes in Visual Dissent. ‘I try to show my work in locations beyond the spaces designated for experiencing art. I want to develop forms that can easily slide from the gallery into the street and back again. For me, there’s no right or wrong place to show my work. It might be a public museum or gallery, but equally it might be on the street, in a newspaper or book, on a badge, placard, T-shirt or online. If the work connects with people, I’m okay with it.’
The book starts with works made in protest to the Vietnam War, such as his montage of Henry Kissinger. An early ‘rough’ for the work is included as well as an image of it used on the cover of the New Statesman – revealing both the process through which he developed the image as well as the contexts in which is was seen.
From there, the book progresses with an unrelenting searing critique, taking a stand on events and issues such as the aparthied, Pinochet’s regime in Chile, workers rights, the miners strike and the fall of the berlin wall – through to more contemporary topics such as terrorisim, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2003 stop the war campaign, the climate crisis and Austerity, ending with Trump’s announcement that the US is exiting the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty in February 2019.
Throughout, Kennard’s text provides the political context for each work, as well as insights into the inspiration and development of his works.
One of the best known works featured in the book is Kennard’s 1980 reworking of the CND symbol, which was originally designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom who studied Painting at the RCA from 1932 to 1935. The book reveals how Kennard developed his image of the CND symbol dissecting a broken missile, and shows the enduring quality of this now iconic image in various contexts, including on posters on the London Underground and placards as part of the CND campaign around the 2016 Trident vote.
Discussing how he developed the piece, Kennard writes: ‘I always want to make images that attempt to uncover the cover-up. To smash a hole in the corporate image, and pull out the reality, kicking and screaming, which is hidden underneath. In some montages the roughness is left so that people can see the joins, signposting the fact that it’s the result of action and that nothing is hidden. It implies that we have to act to make the break and encourages people to make their own versions of the image in collage, drawing, painting, papier mâché or other media.’This spirit of involving others can be seen in Kennard’s teaching at the RCA. In 2015, he participated in Fiddling While Earth Burns an exhibition at the RCA organised by the Climate Action Collective, a group of artists from across the College and in 2017 he coordinated The Odious Smell of Truth an exhibition by the RAGE collective of international young artists from the RCA, which demonstrated the strength of collective action and highlighted issues that will define our future.
A free exhibition at The Gallery at Foyles to mark the release of the book has been extended until 31 October 2019.
Kennard’s work is in many major collections including Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum. His work has been published in numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Scotsman, New Statesman and Time Magazine. His photo-essay in seven chapters @earth was published in May 2011 telling a story without words of global destruction and resistance told through the language of photomontage, combining new works, made with the assistance of Tarek Salhany, with images from throughout his 40-year career. The first major retrospective of Kennard's work was held at the Imperial War Museum for a year from May 2015.