Visual Dissent - a Q&A with renowned political artist Peter Kennard
Peter Kennard has been one of Britain's foremost political artists of the last fifty years. His new book Visual Dissent centres around his images, photomontages and illustrations from protests, year by year, which provoked public outrage, and started necessary conversation.
Here you can read our exclusive Q&A with Peter, along with previews of some page spreads featured in the book
- Aside from John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann, what other artists have influenced your artwork?
Goya’s Disasters of War etchings is still, for me, the most powerful condemnation of war ever made by an artist. His anger seems burned into the etching plates They speak as powerfully now about warfare and the innocent victims of imperial power as they did when they were created 200 years ago.. I began making small paintings based on them while at art school in 1965 and they have stayed with me as the supreme example of what art can do to protest against inhumanity.
- Often your graphic works are in monochrome, is this prefigured by the subject matter or through personal choice?
I began making photomontages in black and white as I felt that the subject matter is more concentrated in monochrome and I also wanted to get the work out to wide audience through newspaper reproduction which in the 1970’s and 80’s was predominately black and white. I later started making more photomontages in colour, especially in work about the climate emergency we are confronting now. An example is the use of the photo of our beautiful blue planet taken from space. I cover photos of it in oil, dust, burns and rips, to show, in an accessible way, the imbecility of our current actions and our ostrich-like response to impending disaster.
- Striking visual motifs occur throughout your collages - skeletons, skulls, magnifying glasses, hands. What draws you to these in particular?
I try and turn images of objects that everyone knows and socialise them as symbols that can relate to current events. These motifs appear throughout my new book Visual Dissent in different contexts and they are there to try and create a visual language in which the everyday image can become a tool to enable critical thought in the viewer. I especially want to get through to young people who might be encouraged to rethink today’s constant bombardment of images as not something that is fixed but rather something in which they can intervene. Through making their own connections with collage and montage they can produce rather than consume. This is why I undertake practical workshops during my exhibitions.
- In October 2003, Banksy installed one of his own creations on a wall in Tate Britain, drawing parallels with an artwork in 1980 when you inserted your own doctored version of Constable's Haywain amongst the postcards on sale in the National Gallery, London. Aside from their subject matter, through the action of placement do you think such pieces function as more of a comment on the nature of art institutions today?
I have had emails along the lines of ‘like what you’re doing Pete but don’t you think you’re ripping off Banksy?’. The perils of getting into my 70’s! I have always believed it’s vital to make work for every context possible, from t-shirts and badges to galleries and museums. I’m in the privileged position of being able to make work critical of the status quo without getting locked up or tortured, which happens to artists in many countries. I think it’s important to use this privilege to try and show work in public galleries and museums, but it can involve issues of censorship and questions of who sponsors the institution. I have described these issues in my book in relation to my own work. I’m heartened that because of the response of campaigning artists and cultural workers this is now a big issue globally.
- In the book you discuss your austerity project - Pallets when your work about homelessness was mistakenly identified as scrap. How do you feel about this personally? Have you had other artworks destroyed in the past?
I like the idea of using everyday materials and transforming them to make a critical point.
The pallet works, illustrated in my book, are trying to make works about homeless people living on the street. The fact they can and have been mistaken for scrap is in itself a symbol of a section of societies attitude to homelessness. One of my favourite artists is Kurt Schwitters, the great collagist, who, the story is told (maybe apocryphal), that when arriving in England, fleeing the Nazi’s in the 1930s, all he had to declare at customs was an old suitcase full of ephemera, bus tickets, pages torn from magazines etc, all material for his future work.
- As illustrated in Visual Dissent, your recent output reflects a shift towards mixed media and digital technology. Was this driven by a need to make your art more relevant to contemporary audiences by adopting modes of visual communication that they could relate to?
I still cut and paste but now also use photoshop (with assistance, as I can’t get my head round it, being too used to sitting at a table covered in chaotic piles of photos). To me, both ways are tools for making images, but it’s the subject matter that’s vital. I now also use mixed media and installation as I think the emphasis on the computer screen in our lives means that we are losing out on a sense of the materiality of the image, how it is printed, what material it is printed on, the glitches in the print surface. On the other hand, the internet has allowed me to create images that can go directly out into the world, be seen globally and possibly used immediately by campaigners and NGO’s.
- How do you feel about your art and its place in the world today?
Due to the dangerous times we’re living in the art world has at last woken up to the vital role art can play in the struggle to create a different world where profit is not the arbiter for every human action. Artists all over the world are discovering new ways to express, protest and represent their societies. Therefore, I’m hoping that my current work in putting this book together in such a way that the design by the brilliant Peter Brawne will make available in an accessible form the ways that I have responded to socio-political events over the last 50 years and be useful to people working for change. It hopefully becomes a new kind of history book detailing one event for each year as well as explaining the methodology of the images. I’m hoping that it can rescue often forgotten events that are crucial in understanding our current world for new generations of artists, activists and concerned individuals.
Peter Kennard is Professor of Political Art at the Royal College of Art. In 2015, the Imperial War Museum hosted a year long retrospective of his work Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist. He has published numerous art monographs, and contributed his visuals to publications, magazines and news stories in the press.