The Haywain with Cruise Missiles by Peter Kennard, 1980
The Haywain with Cruise Missiles is not the sort of picture you would expect to see in an art gallery. In fact, it isn’t a painting at all. Peter Kennard's poster is a transposition of John Constable's Haywain, bristling with American cruise missiles. It was in response to the missiles deployment in Britain in the 1980s. It has become one of the defining images of the anti-nuclear campaign in the UK.
Haywain with Cruise Missiles transforms the warm green peace of the Suffolk countryside into a terror zone. In this subversive photomontage, three nuclear warheads are inserted into the idyllic East Anglian countryside depicted in John Constable's famous painting. The US used local Suffolk airfields to fly their bombers.
In Kennard's photomontage, the hay wain (cart) is a modern-day rocket launcher poised for action to defend England. Missiles stand erect, undoubtedly phallic; they are positioned ready to penetrate the calm.
Impetus for this work was the growing use of RAF bases for the US bomber fleet. It was also a response to a Ministry of Defence information leaflet that portrayed the missiles in delicate watercolours.
Kennard's choice of Constable's Hay Wain lies in the painting's position in British consciousness ( the second most loved painting in Britain, according to a BBC survey) He presents the symbolic violation of one of England's well-known painting with US cruise missiles.
Kennard rips Constable's painting from the comfortable realm of the picturesque by imposing a position in it about US and UK foreign policy, rendering it a highly politicised image. Peter Kennard did not work on top of Constable's painting but instead used a printed reproduction. In turn, Kennard's photomontage would become a reproduced image circulated beyond the art gallery.
Facsimiles of Constable's original painting abound diluting the actual painting's mystique. The artwork moves from totem to discourse. Kennard's photomontage engages with this discourse by combining the reproduction of the painting with the photographic fragment – old and new collides. His interaction questions how we have imaged the English countryside and how it is seen now.
His anti-nuclear art did not hang in galleries but on mass-produced placards used in the numerous CND demonstrations in London in the 1980s.
Broken Missille by John Kennard,
STOP montage by Peter Kennard,
Photo Op by Peter Kennard, 2003
The Bigger Picture
Kennard's work has two themes: the development of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and modern poverty. He believes that the two are connected by military budgets. His concern about nuclear weapons isn't the weapons themselves but the readiness of political powers to use them.
Kennard has written that "the point of my work is to use easily recognisable iconic images, but to render them unacceptable. To break down the image of the all-powerful missile, to represent the power of the millions of people who are trying to break them. After breaking them, to show new possibilities emerging in the cracks and splintered fragments of the old reality."
Peter Kennard's work on nuclear weapons was influenced by the popular opposition to their deployment in the UK. At Greenham Common, a Women's Peace Camp was established to protest at nuclear weapons being sited at the RAF base in Berkshire, England. The camp began in September 1981. The first blockade of the base occurred in May 1982 with 250 women protesting. The camp was active for 19 years.
His Broken Missile, which is currently in the Tate's store cupboard, shows a missile broken against the CND symbol. It represents the power of people to break the power of the nuclear weapon.Kennard is inviting us to think about the bigger issues of government policies. Most people go into an art gallery to escape reality.
Peter Kennard says it is important for him to reflect current events - rather than give people a "history lesson". Peter Kennard's art is inspired by protest movements - but he says his aim is not to create propaganda.
His images have inspired other artists from Mark Wallinger to Banksy.
About Peter Kennard
Born in London in 1949, Kennard painted from the age of 13, using a coal shed as a makeshift studio. After securing a scholarship to attend Byam Shaw art school in London he undertook further study at the Slade and the Royal College of Art.
With a career spanning almost 50 years, Peter Kennard is Britain's most prominent political artist and its leading practitioner of photomontage. His adoption of the medium in the late 1960s restored an association with radical politics and drew inspiration from the anti-Nazi montages of John Heartfield in the 1930s.
Many of Kennard's images are now themselves icons of the medium, defining the tenor of protest in recent times and informing the visual culture of conflict and crisis in modern history.
Kennard defines his role as that of a "communicator" and is determined to make art that exists outside the confines of the art world. He said that: "For me, getting the work out into the world and used is as important as its production." It has served as both maxim and method for Kennard and since the early 1970s; he has brought his art to street level, either as fly posters, protest placards or T-shirts in support of a variety of groups, including the CND and Amnesty International.
The art Kennard produced formed the basis of his career, as he recounted later: "I studied as a painter, but after the events of 1968 I began to look for a form of expression that could bring art and politics together to a wider audience … I found that photography wasn't as burdened with similar art historical associations."
The result was his STOP montage series. The 31 works combined numerous, often classic, photographs of contemporary events with multiple acetate overlays of abstract marks. Kennard sought to capture the disorientating atmosphere of the era as he experienced it himself as a student activist.
These experimental pieces, with their exploration of distorted perceptions and perspectives, were typical of his dynamic milieu in the late 1960s. In the 70s, however, Kennard's simpler, starker imagery sought to raise awareness of human rights violations in Chile and Northern Ireland. These montages found a regular platform in the left wing press.
In the 80s, amid the rising tensions of the cold war and the policies of Margaret Thatcher. His direct and often sardonic montages were made for CND, articulating fears in British society as the east-west stand-off pushed the world towards potential nuclear catastrophe.
In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall gave Kennard, like many, cause for hope. However, the emergence of the so-called "new world order" quickly dampened this initial optimism. He began experimenting with the creation of some three-dimensional artworks, later explaining that these arose from "a mixture of personal experience, disillusion with organised politics and the use in the media of innumerable digital photomontages" causing him to "question the effectiveness of photomontage as a critical, social probe".
Works such as Welcome to Britain, an installation of placards and crates at the Royal Festival Hall, and Reading Room, an arrangement of newspaper lecterns contemplated aspects of the developing post-cold war, pre-millennium society, from Britain's dispossessed and homeless to the supremacy of the stock markets.
The Iraq war in 2003 prompted Kennard to reconnect with photomontage. Collaboration with Cat Phillipps used digital technology to create one of the archetypal images of the conflict. Photo Op, picturing a grinning Tony Blair posing for a selfie in front of burning oil wells in an arid landscape, became visual shorthand for Blair's controversial Iraq policy.
Before this montage, Kennard created his Decoration paintings, a series of 18 three-metre huge canvases that drew attention to the human cost of the war while simultaneously meditating on tokens of commemoration and military valour. Generated by a combination of digital printing and oil paint, the Decoration series' concern with surface and finish also signalled Kennard's desire to connect with painting.
His series, Face, a group of 28 anonymous portraits which, merging in and out of darkness, stood for the voiceless and marginalised in a fragmented world.Both series reveal the contemplative nature of Kennard's mature work. Boardroom, an installation dwelling on aspects of the modern conflict incorporates some of his most familiar images and motifs.See video link: https://vimeo.com/145624413