Published  03/03/2021

Peter Kennard – interview: ‘Montage is about allowing people to think critically’

Peter Kennard – interview: ‘Montage is about allowing people to think critically’

Ahead of a new exhibition at Richard Saltoun Gallery, the celebrated political artist talks of photomontage, protest, art schools and image-making in an age of mass reproduction

Portrait of Peter Kennard in his studio with Untitled 6 (2020), 2020. Photo: Jenny Matthews. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.


Peter Kennard (b1949) is arguably the most revered political artist working in Britain today. Active since the tail-end of the 1960s, he has taken aim at Henry Kissinger, nuclear proliferation, the Iraq war, climate change and global inequality. Powerfully direct, yet never mere agitprop, many of his photomontages have become iconic images of protest, circulated in publications and on posters and placards.

In Crushed Missile (1981), one of Kennard’s most widely disseminated montages, a worn hand bends and breaks a nuclear missile. The clenched fist – symbol of solidarity from the labour movement to today’s Black Lives Matter activists – is victorious over the threat of war and annihilation. The hands that appear in Kennard’s new Untitled 2020 (2020) series are very different. Unclenched and enraged, some claw at newspaper pages of stock market results. Others appear incarcerated within the rigid lines of figures, trapped by the numbers that affect the destiny of millions.

Peter Kennard, Untitled 3 (2020), 2020. Acrylic, charcoal, toner, oil, acrylic and graphite on paper, 111.5 x 76 cm. © Peter Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.

Artworks from this new series constitute one section of The Concept of History, Kennard’s forthcoming exhibition at Richard Saltoun Gallery. It is his first exhibition with the gallery, as well as his first major show in London since the acclaimed 2015 survey Unofficial War Artist at the Imperial War Museum. It also forms part of a year-long series at Saltoun linking artists to the influential political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose writings on authoritarianism have gained new traction in the populist, post-truth era. The exhibition’s run will be marked by a series of virtual events, including a walkthrough with the artist, a virtual reading group and a conversation with Roger Berkowitz, founder of the Hannah Arendt Center, which is available to watch here 

In her essay collection Between Past and Future (1961), Arendt described history as a “manmade process”, forged from biases and manipulations. Kennard has explored this idea from the very start. His early Stop paintings (1968-76), created using an obscure process called true-to-scale printing, juxtapose fragments from news stories to disorientating effect. Real-time history is jumbled and reshaped. The Concept of History links early and late works on paper and canvas with a 1990 set of his long-running Pallet sculptures. Created since 1987, they imprint discarded wooden pallets with spectral human marks: traces, perhaps, of the many homeless people who use them as beds.

Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, Studio International spoke to Kennard from his Hackney studio.

JOE LLOYD: You began as a painter. What were you earliest works?

PETER KENNARD: I started painting when I was about 13, working in the coal hole of my flat. I was very influenced by Giacometti, Bacon and Picasso: it was that sort of period. I took some of their style and worked it into my own ideas. I did a lot of small figurative paintings on found materials. At that time in London, there were still bomb sites, so you could go and find bits of wood and metal.

So I did that, and then I went to the Byam Shaw School of Art when I was 16; I got a scholarship there. Then I went to the Slade in 1967, which is when I moved to making political work. It was the period, 1967 and 1968, with all the demonstrations: Paris, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam. We had sit-ins at the arts school. I went on anti-Vietnam demos, which was really important. And it all came together.

Peter Kennard, Stop 13, 1968-76. Oil and ink on canvas, 99 x 147.5 cm. © Peter Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.

It was quite incongruous at the Slade as everyone was doing post-colour field painting. There was still that idea of a canon, and you were on a particular point of it. A certain sort of painting was coming out of the United States, people such as Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. And what was going on in the world wasn’t actually affecting that. So my work was not really appreciated. I had my degree show next to the gents’ bog in the basement – I was sort of relegated there. But it was great because it just let me get on with it.

JL: Is that when you started producing photomontages?

PK: No, I started with the Stop paintings. They’re more about cutting out things from magazines and newspapers. At that time, you had amazing picture stories. Photojournalists such as Don McCullin were getting 20 pages from Vietnam in the Sunday Times Magazine. There was a lot of material to work with. I overlaid them on to negatives, then printed them on to canvas, so they were more like overlaps than montages.

Later, I started working for a newspaper called Workers Press. That’s when I started cutting out pictures and sticking them together. I got into Walter Benjamin’s ideas of The Author As Producer and his discussions with Brecht about epic theatre, those sorts of things. I’d go to the editorial meetings. They had this big picture library, and I could put something together. As long as it was on the composing table by seven o’clock in the evening, I was all right. And then I had to go and sell the thing around the pubs.

It was a whole different idea of what an artist could be. It was an amazing experience.

Peter Kennard, Stop 31, 1968-76. Oil and ink on canvas. 60 x 61.5 cm. © Peter Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.

JL: How did you encounter montage as a form? I know it has a long satirical history, stretching back to John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi work in the 1930s.

PK: I discovered Heartfield in the 70s and Hannah Höch. At that time, all these people were seen as totally marginal, because the canon was Cézanne to Pollock and what have you. So, it wasn’t really on the menu. But I discovered it, as well as the constructivists such as [Alexander] Rodchenko. From that, I found I could make work that could be reproduced and relate immediately to what was happening in the world.

JL: From today’s vantage point, where artists readily take up new technologies, it is extraordinary to think how long it took the art establishment to embrace photography.

PK: I suppose it gradually became seen as an art form in the 70s. In London, there were only about two galleries that ever showed that sort of work, but it was a tiny art world. Then you had Andy Warhol making silkscreens from photographs and Robert Rauschenberg making combines. That’s when it became very much part of some artists’ practice.

The technique I used wasn’t silkscreen, because with silkscreen you get the dots. I found this thing called true-to-scale printing, which is a very strange method with a piece of lino and gelatin spread out on it. I made same-size originals, then rubbed them on to it. It was quite a complicated process. It was usually used by some architects in a very tumbledown office space in King’s Cross. And so I on went on making these, which are the ones in the exhibition. After Workers Press, I got a job as a night telephonist, which meant I could afford to make one of these big canvases every three weeks or so. They’ve got this continuous tone, this feel of newsprint, and I worked on bare canvas so that it’s not white, it has a texture.

Peter Kennard, Stop 23, 1968-76. Oil and ink on canvas, 153 x 101.5 cm. © Peter Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.

JL: How has the way you disseminate images changed?

PK: It’s changed a lot through the internet. Thousands of people are working with Photoshop and making digital montages. There’s enormous, enormous dissemination. I think it’s great that people can do it. But I still have this thing of actually making a physical montage, because cutting is integral to the idea of montage of juxtaposition. And then I have actual originals, which I didn’t used to show because I never thought of them as things you would show in a gallery. I have done in the last 15 years because young people are quite interested in ways of making by hand. That’s come back into favour as well.

JL: As a reaction against digital media?

PK: Yeah. When digital technology came in, all the art schools shut down their darkrooms. They sold or gave this stuff away, often even the printing presses. And they’ve been trying to buy them back ever since. Because they had this dream of a room of silent students, all in a clean room just tapping away at computers, which to me is the opposite of what an art school should be; an art school should be raucous. But gradually students realised that digital technology is a tool among other tools. And they want to work with their hands as well, making.

Peter Kennard, Stop 32, 1968-76. Oil and ink on canvas, 100.5 x 150 cm. © Peter Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.

JL: As well as a practising artist, you are professor of political art and senior tutor at the Royal College of Art. How have the events of the past year affected your teaching?

PK: It is much harder. There’s so much non-verbal feeling when you’re looking at someone’s work, when you’re sitting in their studio space. And it becomes sort of abstracted. But I’ve been looking for ways to go beyond and get a group of students to start relating to each other on Zoom. I think it’s a time for collaboration in a big way, especially for young artists, with all the economic problems. Which goes to, I think, the 70s and when there were a lot of collaborative ideas.

It was much easier then because you could just get buildings to work in, whereas now property is mad. It’s much more difficult. But collaborative work is very important and a lot of groups have come up during Covid. Black Lives Matter worked around that. Those are the bright sides of what’s going on: artists are coming together and not worrying about the money system of art.

JL: Your own work has circulated physically and digitally, and inside and outside the art system.

PK: I suppose there’s a conflict, where I want to make work that can be disseminated, which the internet enables, but also autographic mark-making, which has a physical quality to it. I’ve always wanted to merge the photography with the handmade in a sense, and break up that smooth surface of the photograph. I’ve worked in a lot of different contexts because of that.

One of the things about montage is that it should have the break, the cut.  I don’t mind if works are not smoothed out or Photoshopped. I’m not trying to create an image of a glorious reality or irreality, like the advertising world does. Those breaks are really important.

Peter Kennard, Pallet, 1990. From a set of 12. Oil, dust, charcoal on wood, 90 x 60 cm. © Peter Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.

I did a lot of stuff for the Guardian at one time, but then they were worried that people might be confused, because they’re using photographs elsewhere. Which I think crazy, because montage, to me, is about allowing people to think critically about images. Montage brings together things that are usually separate: the missiles, the victims of the missiles, the leaders who are ordering the missiles.

JL: Some of your works, such as the Pallet sculptures, seem activated by an art world context.

PK: Yeah, if they’re not in a gallery, they become scraps, street objects. The gallery gives them a context, in a way. I think that galleries are really important. They’re one of the few places where people can just spend time. When I exhibited at the Imperial War Museum [in 2015], you had young people, war veterans, incredible numbers of people seeing work which they hadn’t come to see. I did a workshop there for a week, and sometimes had 150 kids, all making work. And that opens so much for people if they can actually work with material.

JL: How has the way people receive photomontages changed?

PK: It’s very difficult to make any image stick in people’s minds now. Occasionally, there’s the photo, like the drowned child on a beach, that people suddenly start to think about. But even a horrific image like that doesn’t last long in people’s minds. Things are so quick now. 

When lockdown started, I was going to do a whole lot of stuff about Donald Trump. And I’ve ended up doing something much more ambiguous, I suppose, using the image of the hand. That brings in a more existential feeling about Covid, about Black Lives Matter and the economic chasm that has opened up even more between rich and poor people, rich and poor countries. I’m trying to make something that works on a different level than straight montage.

Peter Kennard, Pallet, 1990. Oil, charcoal and dust on wood, 90 x 65 x 14 cm. © Peter Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery.

They’ve got the stock market pages, but they’re rubbed away. And the hands are worked on with charcoal and pencil and different mediums. In some, the hand is merged with the numbers, so that the numbers become almost like shrapnel hitting the human. The human works in total opposition to the seriality you get from stock market numbers. Then there are also the numbers coming in daily about people who have died from Covid.

JL: Hands are a recurring feature in your work, from the hand-crushing nuclear missiles to today’s frenzied claws.

PK: The hand is very important. One thing is that they go back to prehistoric cave painting. You never get images of people, you get just the hand. Also, the hand symbolises emotions without being a specific person – it’s more symbolic, more general than specific.

JL: Directly depicting current events in art, especially in a world already saturated with images, might be  limiting.

PK: And why does one need to depict it, in a sense? I think one needs to picture the human response, so people can look at the work and think of their own experience. A sort of empathy, I suppose. The times we’re in are incredibly complex. With Trump, almost everything we did about him backed him up in a way. It was grist to his mill. For me – I don’t advocate for other people – it’s finding something much more human, much more about the human strivings around the world at the moment.

Peter Kennard: The Concept of History is at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, from 8 March to 10 April 2021.

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