Published  15/08/2008

William Kelly - Artist as Peacemaker

William Kelly – Artist as Peacemaker


American-born Australian artist and human rights advocate, William Kelly first visited Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1968, and settled there in 1974. An important artist and teacher, he early established an intellectual and creative originality as an artist. With an international commitment to the peace movement, he has, in recent years, seen the publication of Art and Humanist Ideals: Contemporary Perspectives in 2003 (Macmillan, Australia), an anthology compiled and introduced by him. The book also includes artworks selected from 'The Archive of Humanist Art', established by the artist in 2000, a travelling collection of artists' prints and drawings from all over the world. He has lived with his wife Veronica in rural Victoria since 2000, and has always maintained his network of colleagues and friends internationally.

The Humanist Art project came about when he was invited in the late 1990s to be an honorary visiting fellow in Art and Humanities at the Lehigh University Museum in Pennsylvania, USA, with the intention of examining their collection and identifying works for a possible exhibition that would deal with 'social ideas, not so much political but social and humanist'.1 Kelly realised that there were very few institutions that chose such a focus, although key exhibitions, such as 'New Images of Man' (1959)2 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with a catalogue essay by Paul Tillich, were organised from time to time. Looking first at the personal collection that he and his wife Veronica had made over their life together, Kelly discovered that there were a substantial number of original artworks and posters as well as documentations and catalogues, where a sense of 'hope' characterised the work. Not strongly political works in most cases, there were numerous works where 'a feeling that society is going to be better if we have a substantial cultural change and understanding that we do need to live a bit better together than we do. The work is essentially very hopeful - and essentially very positive. But it often reflects on issues which have grown out of experiences of individuals, some of whom have been imprisoned for their beliefs, and some who have been in other ways ostracised for long periods of time within their own culture for their beliefs, but most of whom now are recognised as being people who are making substantial contributions'.3 As a member of Amnesty International, Kelly has been involved with collaborative projects with Art for Amnesty in Dublin, who have in turn done projects with Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney and with the musicians Sting and Bono.

The Humanist Art project has a travelling exhibition programme that appropriately chooses symbolic sites. These are, more often than not, sites where catastrophes have taken place, such as Guernica in Spain, or sites that are significant in the history of the peace movement. Kelly chose Brunswick, part of Melbourne, as a tribute to the artist Noel Counihan (1913-1986), an artist committed to political activity and to the defence of the underprivileged and suppressed.4 During the 1930s, when unemployment was high and evictions commonplace, Counihan was actively involved in protest. The government was tightening the law on free speech in response to social unrest during the Depression. Public gatherings and speeches critical of the government were outlawed. Counihan, one of Australia's most radical and outspoken artists, took an original approach to avoid being arrested in 1933: he had himself locked into a metal cage with large padlocks and chains on it. The cage was mounted on a horse-drawn cart, covered so that his presence was not visible. The cart was driven to the Brunswick Town Hall on Sydney Road, where the wheel of the cart was chained to the veranda post of a shop and the horse was released. The covers were removed to reveal Counihan, who proceeded to deliver his defence of free speech and his list of the ills of society, then in the throes of depression; he also spoke on the wider issues of the rise of fascism abroad and of the Nazi victories in Germany. The police tried in vain to beat the cage open, by which time thousands of people had come to witness the protest. He was eventually arrested and tried, and won the case on appeal after a night in prison; the case became a symbol of free speech in Australia.5 'The Humanist Archive' was exhibited in Melbourne in 2007, to highlight Counihan's commitment to an art that, in the tradition of Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier and Käthe Kollwitz, exposed the plight of the underprivileged.

William Kelly has recently been associated with the town of Guernica in Spain, since being invited there in the mid-1990s. Each year he visits to attend the commemoration of the bombing, immortalised by Picasso's vast and powerful work 'Guernica' (1937), perhaps the most significant anti-war protest of the 20th century. Painted in black and white to allude to reportage and the lifelessness of war, the vast work measuring 3.5 x 7.8 metres was commissioned for the Paris International Exposition, by the Spanish government in exile during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso's 'Guernica' has become synonymous with the peace movement, and a powerful anti-war symbol. On Monday 26 April, 1937, a market day in the then Basque capital, the German air force performed, what was ironically termed 'a practice air attack', using explosive bombs, incendiary bombs and machine gunfire from low-flying aircrafts against individuals on the ground in Guernica; up to 1,600 people were killed and 900 were injured. The devastating impact on innocent civilians was given an iconic status by Picasso's poignant and powerful work. The episode became synonymous with the resistance movement. Now, 70 years later, Kelly presents the episode as a potent symbol of rebuilding and the 'power of reconciliation between peoples and between people and their environment'.6 Many survivors were actively involved with the project and the installation, the youngest of whom are in their late 70s and 80s.

In 2001, 'the city of Guernica asked me to do a project which would help to engage other younger members of the community down through to children in the commemoration, so that they were more aware of what was happening.  I devised a project, which is 'The Plaza of Fire and Light'. Because there are issues of ETA and Basque separatism which was continuing to go on, with people being killed [even after the ceasefire], in addition to do with reconciliation, commemoration to do with Germany, with the Spanish government who was involved in the bombing of Guernica itself, but also within the community. The project involved many people and was based on an ancient Basque symbol to do with the sun and with the issues to do with ancient Basque traditions and imagery'.7

Kelly devised a temporary installation using candles and a large central fire. The central fire was itself lit by the survivors of the bombing, the inhabitants of Guernica - some 1,500 - who lit candles from the central fire. Those candles represented the victims of the bombing, 'So it was a passing of the flame of the survivors to the rest of the community'. The people of Guernica were clearly affected by the ritual. Alex Carrascosa, Basque artist and historian, referred to the symbolism of this as re-igniting 'the fire of memory.'8 In response, they invited Kelly to draft his own views on the meaning of the performance.

In the context of reconciliation, the context of the passing of the flame, ETA and the separatist movement, which was still active ... I wrote that the flame burns for all the people who have been victims of violence on either side of the political agenda, anywhere in the world. That was seen by some as potentially politically contentious; if you have separatists or a militant group who believe that the others may deserve to die - which is why they kill them - and then you have the other organisation that believes that the separatists deserve to die and this is why they kill them, then you're saying that all life has value. If all life has value then it calls into question the actions of the Spanish government and ETA - not their aims for self-determination but their manner of bringing it about.9

A statement by Kelly was read in Basque - by the Mayor of Guernica (Gernika in Basque language) - at the launch, as well as by others reading it in German, Spanish, French and English to those attending. The following day, it was widely covered in the press, including a pro-separatist paper, and was accepted in terms of its aims. As artist and peacemaker, Kelly made a positive contribution to the ongoing process. Ricardo Abaunza, Director of Kultur-Etxea in Guernica said of this that, '... after the 'Guernica' of Picasso, this is the next most important artwork to do with the commemoration of the bombing'. Kelly is credited with being the inspiration for the first Gernika Art and Peace Conference as well as being a principal drafter of The Gernika Statement on Art & Peace.10 The following year a room in the museum in Guernica was devoted to the cause.

The initial work in his series of projects was a vast drawing by the artist, 'Gernika Lekukotasuna' (The Gernika Document), completed and first displayed in 1998. The drawing is in the collection of the Gernika Peace Museum, with a selection of Prints from the Peace Project. As this was the initial work, its sequel (made ten years later in 2007) comprising two limited edition prints entitled 'Dialogue with 'Guernica'' completed in 2007, was recently installed as giant banners in Guernica's Foru Plaza.

In his catalogue essay for Kelly's exhibition of prints: 'Markers Along the Way', Godwin Bradbeer, fellow artist in Melbourne, wrote:

In some ways Kelly is like a Cézanne or Morandi, preoccupied obsessively with the formalities of his compositions and propositions within the theatre of the picture plane; but viewed retrospectively it is apparent that he has been engaged consciously and purposefully with ideals of conscience and intentions of social betterment that have been rarely, and only marginally, addressed by mainstream contemporary artists and institutions. With or without the figure has always been humanist and philanthropic.11

Kelly became more obviously committed to social issues, to a wider audience at least (those involved with him in any capacity know how unique an individual he is, and that social commitment is central to his work) when he responded to a massacre in Melbourne - the tragic killing of seven people and the wounding of 19 people in Hoddle Street - with a suite of prints and a book dedicated to the peace process. In Violence to Non-Violence: Individual Perspectives, Communal Voices,12 an anthology with Prints from the Peace Project, he engaged with other creative individuals: poets, actors, dancers, writers and academics, criminologists, and doctors. An urgency characterised Kelly's work in this event, for the inhabitants of Melbourne were confronted by the horrors of the first crime of such magnitude in its modern history (albeit not including the massacre of Aborigines in the early days of White settlement). A sense of great sadness informed Kelly's work, which was produced over five years, involving survivors, bereaved relatives, police and witnesses. In the catalogue to the exhibition 'A Contemporary Tragedy', at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne (1993), Jenny Zimmer broached the relationship between ethics and art in a contemporary context. Must good art be wedded to noble intention? Is there an identifiable relationship between ethics and aesthetics? Does the classical and the formal art of any era occupy the high moral and artistic ground? Does high aspiration make the likelihood of fulfilment less possible?13 Bradbeer concludes, 'In the context of Kelly and his work the persuasive element is its quality, the sustained positivity of his vision and the good purpose he brings to all his projects'.14

Drawing underpins all of Kelly's work, and he has been an advocate of the importance of drawing in the visual arts. In 1986, he wrote the Foreword to my book Drawing in Australia: Contemporary Images and Ideas, after visiting some 40 artists' studios together.15 We photographed the art works as we went and, when the research phase was complete, we placed the photographs side by side on the floor of Kelly's warehouse studio and let the images speak to us, interact with each other. It was an organic and natural process, my first book and an adventure that changed my life. Then Kelly had written:

A new and profound respect for drawing, for the ability to clearly articulate ideas in a drawing medium, has emerged in the last decade. It is not a revolution or even a renaissance. Rather, it is the coming to terms with the potential of drawing. It has been a popular misconception that abstract art threatened the status of drawing. Contrary to this, by separating drawing from a basic service role to painting, it liberated it. Drawings, abstract and figurative, were increasingly on their own. That is, their role as 'studies' for paintings diminished and their role as drawings in their own right increased.16

William Kelly's highly realistic paintings, drawings and lithographs reflect his commitment to the idea of the studio, as the place in which his work is made. His work grows from his relationship with his work place and it becomes a metaphor for the wider world. The confines of the studio provide the setting for the artist to explore the restrictions that all humans experience in the environment in which they live. Kelly's work explores human spaces and human images, the environment people inhabit and the objects that they use. He perceives a sense of order and the possibility for the clarity of ideas in the busy world and expresses it by reducing the number of objects in his works. The images are created, not by an additive process, but by having fewer things incorporate more ideas. His paintings are generally sparse in appearance - a single figure, three or four children's blocks or balls, or a combination of these against a flat plane.

Kelly was drawn to the visual arts when he was 17, after seeing Giorgio de Chirico's 'The Anguish of Departure' at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. The painting appealed to him because it was, 'simple, poetic and evocative'.17 The still-life objects in many of his works, the shadows and enigmatic relationships they set up, are testament to the continued association of ideas. In preference to the then dominant style of Abstract Expressionism, Kelly felt closer to the language of de Chirico, Balthus and Giorgio Morandi. It is this relationship of the still-life, so eloquently addressed by the metaphysicians, and the figure, which had not yet returned to prominence, that interested him and which his early work, through to the late 1980s, testifies.

William Kelly was born in Buffalo, New York, studied at the Philadelphia College of Art and first visited Australia in 1968 on a Fulbright scholarship. He worked and studied at art schools in Melbourne. In the early 1970s he exhibited in New York and was a participant in the Figurative Artist Alliance on the Lower East Side but returned to Australia when he became Dean of the School of Art at the National Gallery School (now Victorian College of the Arts), a position he held for seven years. He has since exhibited widely, all over the world.

Kelly's early work involved 'literally mapping out the figure or figures and their environment in relation to the picture plane'.18 He also used photographs, as models were difficult to obtain for the long gestation of the works. Kelly's work remains characterised by his meticulous approach to drawing the figure, which enables him to concentrate on the poetry of mark-making and the creation of a finely-woven drawn surface.

From his studio work to his installations, light has been of great importance in Kelly's work, 'If one makes an issue of light, as I do, then one is also making an issue of darkness or the absence of light. So the light suggests not just the rectangle ... but also something that flows from the rectangle and informs us of what else is happening'.19 In 'Self-Portrait, studio' (1983), light is as much part of the subjected theme as the images that are in the picture. Of specific importance is Kelly's use of artificial light in all of his work. The earliest clear reference to this came from a literary source, Samuel Beckett's, Krapp's Last Tape on which he based a suite of wood block prints as early as 1963. A theatre lamp is employed, to throw a square, or a rectangle of light, across the plane causing shadows and fine lines to define the objects. It has a relationship to searching and discovering light amid darkness, whilst providing the artist with a means of fully discovering the object or figure.

Kelly's early figure works were sometimes described as 'detached, unsympathetic, renderings', and 'painted like pieces of furniture'.20 While they sometimes appeared almost iconic in their stillness, his figures have never been devoid of feeling or emotion. The edge of the picture plane forms a barrier against which the figure moves. Kelly's work has always preferred to acknowledge the flatness of the picture plane than to create pictorial depth; consequently, surface quality is crucial. Many of his works draw on literary sources. Like the aforementioned Beckett play, and of particular reference are: Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game, which deals with the nature of games and how systems are born, conventions established and rules followed; Henry Miller's Smile at the Foot of the Ladder; the films: Fritz Lang's, 'Metropolis' where Lang's 'edges' were the limits of the factory and workers' city to which they were confined; Robbe-Grillet's, 'Last Year at Marienbad' with its illusions and allusions, its mystery and the serious thread running through a game implied, as in the case of Hesse. Kelly's still-life works, which use children's blocks and balls came from the notion of games as imagery, as a pastime, as a means of learning and as social experience, and also as a reminder of innocence and vulnerability and hope.

William Kelly was recently awarded the prestigious Courage of Conscience Award in the USA by the Peace Abbey near Boston, while overseas he has been presented with the Coat of Arms of the city of Gernika for his contribution. Kelly was inspired by Picasso's 'Guernica'as a young man, and drew from the great work - recently exhibited with subsequent work on the subject.a Subsequently he has produced 'Guernica for the Survivors', a small limited edition print. At the bottom of this discreet work, Kelly has placed children's blocks and balls, a longstanding element in many works, in the middle of the destruction of Guernica, as a poignant memorial to the fact that the survivors of Guernica now in their 70s and 80s, were almost all children on the day of the bombing. 'They were going about children's activities, going to the market place with their parents, playing with their toys, and then this horrific raid changed their lives forever. There is not a day when they don't sense something to do with that. Part of my involvement with these concerns is that I think, that if we're going to have children, we have a certain responsibility to them socially and politically. If I can do anything in my life to help my children - and others - not to be in the situation, that those young children were in Guernica on that day, then that's the most that I can really contribute. I remember John Lennon was asked one time whether he would prefer to be remembered for his music or his peace activism and he answered something to the effect that there's no question, for his work in peace, because that is ultimately much more important. Of course, that's quite self-effacing on his part, but the reality is that, I think that there is a balance between what we do for ourselves, and what we do for others ... The two 'Guernica' pictures are just part of that journey.'21

The following exhibitions will be showing work directly related to Guernica throughout April 2009. Mars Gallery, Melbourne: this will have the large double print 'Dialogue with 'Guernica'' and related works on paper. Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne: this will have banners based on the large double print "Dialogue with 'Guernica'' and related images from Gernika by William Kelly plus supportive documentation.

Kultur-Etxea/Foru Plaza: to coincide with the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Gernika, the large six metre high banners based on the double print 'Dialogue with 'Guernica'' will be hanging in the plaza throughout April.

1. William Kelly interviewed by Julie Copeland, ABC Radio National, 28 May 2006.
2. Paul Tillich, 'Prefatory Note', New Images of Man, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959.
3. Interview with Julie Copeland.
4. Janet McKenzie, Noel Counihan. Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1986.
5. Bernard Smith, Noel Counihan, Artist and Revolutionary. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993: 90-95.
6. Interview with Julie Copeland.
7. Ibid.
8. Alex Carrascosa.
9. Interview with Julie Copeland.
10. Ricardo Abaunza.
11. Godwin Bradbeer, 'Markers Along the Way: An Exhibition of Prints by William Kelly'. Shepparton Art Gallery, 20 July-20 August, 2006: 6.
12. William Kelly, Violence to Non-Violence, Individual Perspectives, Communal Voices, An Anthology, with Prints from the Peace Project, Harwood Academic Publishers, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1994.
13. Jenny Zimmer, A Contemporary Tragedy: an exhibition by William Kelly on the events surrounding the Hoddle Street Massacre. Melbourne: Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1993.
14. Bradbeer, op.cit: 6.
15. Janet Mckenzie, Drawing in Australia, Contemporary Images and Ideas. Melbourne: Macmillan Australia, 1986.
16. William Kelly, 'Drawing', Bulletin of the National Gallery Society. June 1981: 8-9.
17. William Kelly to Janet McKenzie, Letter, February 1985.
18. Maudie Palmer, Profile 3/1976 William Kelly, An Exhibition of Recent Work. 7 April-7 May, Melbourne: University of Melbourne Gallery, 1976.
19. Interview with Janet McKenzie. Melbourne: Gerstman Abdullah Gallery, 1984.
20. Elwyn Lynn, Proving that Realism is alive and well in the Ameican Scene, The Bulletin. Sydney, 28 June 1969: 52.
21. Interview with Julie Copeland.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA