An exhibition at the Millennium Gallery, Against War: Peter Kennard and the CND Movement, features more than 100 era-defining works by an artist who created some of the peace movement’s most potent images.
CND was formed in February 1958 in response to the detonation of Britain’s first hydrogen bomb and the Government’s agreement to house American nuclear weapons on British soil, but it was 10 years later that Kennard was stirred to action.
“It was 1968 and the anti-Vietnam protests outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square,” he recalls. “I was painting then and I wanted to find a way to connect my growing political awareness with art. That’s when I turned to photo-montage because it had an actual reality.”
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s Peter Kennard’s powerful photomontages ensured that the movement, and the striking imagery that came to represent it, were etched onto the public consciousness.
He found that taking iconic images and reproducing them in a different way got people asking questions.
He began assembling a picture archive from images in newspapers and magazines and original photos in picture libraries.
A lot of what I do is driven by anger and the work channels it
A few committed photographers let him use their work but with libraries a reproduction fee would be involved. He remembers when he wanted to use a picture of earth taken from outer space he was quoted a prohibitive figure and then contacted NASA and found they were in the public domain and anyone could use them for free.
He explains the difference between photo-montage and collage. “With photo-montage you can take two images with separate meanings to create a new reality whereas with collage it is several different things.”
For one of his most famous images, the picture of the stopped clock at Hiroshima suggested the peace symbol. When cruise missiles first arrived at Greenham Common they were intended to be transported to locations around the countryside so he took a classic rural scene, Constable’s Haywain, and inserted a cluster of missiles.
It was the arrival of cruise missiles in Britain in 1979 which prompted him to offer his services to CND.
He began getting his images in print, first in the socialist press and then to accompany articles in the New Scientist, New Statesman and The Guardian.
Posters were seen as an effective way of spreading the word but he also produced badges and fliers. and other ephemeral material is on display.
“We had to find different ways to get it out there,” he reflects.” I wasn’t being paid for this and so I started teaching and that allowed me to make work that wasn’t saleable.”
He also showed work in galleries including exhibitions in Sheffield at the Graves Gallery and Town Hall to coincide with the national CND conference in the city in 1983.
He is now Professor of Political Art at the Royal College of Art, London, author of six books, inclduing Unofficial War Artist, published by the Imperial War Museum to coincide with a retrospective exhibition, and his work is held in public collections including Tate, Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial War Museum, Science Museum, British Council and the Arts Council Collection.
There was a time when the fears of a worldwide nuclear war gradually began to fade but not the anti-war message and he continued to produce work relating to the Iraq invasion and the war in Syria. Now, of course, the nuclear concerns are back.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock measures the potential for global man-made catastrophe. In 1958, the year of CND’s formation, the clock reached two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to worldwide catastrophe. In 2018, in light of current threats of nuclear war and unchecked climate change, the clock returned to the position of two minutes to midnight for the first time in 58 years.
“A lot of what I do is driven by anger and I use the work to channel it,” he says.
“I’m proud to be showing my work at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, a city where protest against the horrors of war and dissent against inequality have been integral to its people throughout history. It’s 60 years since CND was formed, we need to campaign against nuclear weapons and the proliferation of weaponry and arms dealing now more than ever.””
Art Against War: Peter Kennard and the CND Movement continues in the Design Gallery of the Millennium Gallery until October 7.