Peter Kennard joins the Richard Saltoun Gallery – ‘Britain’s most important political artist’ Peter Kennard joins London gallery” so read the headline.. Peter Kennard is always interesting, his work is always interesting, he’s interesting to talk to, although a quick check tells us we haven’t encountered him since the summer of 2017 at the Martello Street Studios Open Day over here in Hackney. If I remember rightly he was (and I assume still is) based in the old Throbbing Gristle Death Studios room just off London Fields. Seems Peter has now started working with the Richard Saltoun Gallery
“And meanwhile back down one of the many concrete staircases you find Peter Kennard, if you don’t know Peter Kennard then you almost certainly do know, in these social media fueled days, his powerful imagery, you’ve almost certainly seen his Blair Selfie, a 2003 photomontage “Photo Op”, of Tony Blair taking a selfie against a backdrop of burning oil, a piece that was described by The Guardian as “the definitive work of art about the war”. The delightfully friendly man is, according to Wikipedia, a “London born and based photomontage artist and Senior Research Reader in Photography, Art and the Public Domain at the Royal College of Art, Seeking to reflect his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement, he turned from painting to photomontage to better address his political views. He is best known for the images he created for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the 1970s–80s including a détournement of John Constable’s Hay Wain called “Haywain with Cruise Missiles“ – further coverage of that 2017 afternoon at the Martello Street Studios Open Day here
Some of Kennard’s best-known work followed his STOP paintings, such as Haywain with Cruise Missiles and Protest and Survive, both from the 1980s. The former was, Kennard says, a “resistance to the imminent stationing of cruise missiles in the English countryside”. In the work, Constable’s bucolic scene is interrupted by enormous weapons protruding from the horse-drawn cart. Kennard’s version was made into a postcard, which the artist used to take into London’s National Gallery and slip into piles of postcards of Constable’s actual painting—a forerunner to Banksy’s pranks (the Bristol street artist has paid tribute to Kennard who worked with Banksy in Bethlehem in 2007).
Artist as activist
As with much of Kennard’s work, his art spills over into activism. In 2011, he took part in protests at the National Gallery over its sponsorship by Finmeccanica, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers. A year later the arms firm dropped its sponsorship, only to reappear seven years later under the name Leonardo. The newly rebranded arms dealer then held an event at the Design Museum in 2018, sparking further controversy and the removal of works from the museum by artists.
Kennard has applied his sardonic approach to art-making to wars in Chile, Northern Ireland, Palestine and the Gulf, among others. Such work has earned him the moniker of “unofficial war artist” as well as “Britain’s most important political artist” from Richard Slocombe, the Imperial War Museum’s senior curator.
In 2007, Kennard returned to photomontage to create, with Cat Phillips, the now-famous image of a grinning Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of a blazing oil field in Iraq, titled Photo Op.
The image was so plausible, many thought it real. “When you make a montage you never legislate for what’s going to stick or what isn’t,” Kennard says. “When we did it, it just seemed like another image but that one really stuck. Google it and it still turns up. It must be very annoying for Blair.”
As for showing in a gallery again, Kennard is enthusiastic. He says: “I’ve always thought it important to show in galleries, mainly public galleries, because historically they have been quite happy to not have any political work on show, especially in this country. But that is beginning to change, at last.”
Gallery owner Richard Saltoun points out that Britain has a strong history of art and culture with left-wing political values, “however, since the 1990s—in part due to the explosion of the art market—the direct involvement of visual artists in politics has waned”.
Saltoun adds: “It is clear though that Peter is out of time, he has fallen into an odd space, between artist, professor, activist and political force. For this reason he seems to fallen into a ‘gap’, slightly lost, and written out of the institutional story of post-war British Art.”
In 2021, that history is finally beginning to be rewritten. (so reported the Art Newspaper)