From the Vietnam War to present day, we talk to artist Peter Kennard about political activism and photomontage, and how royalties have helped to support his practice.
What made you become an artist? How did it start?
I started really young. I just started painting away in a larder and then in my parent’s coal hole down at the bottom of the flats which had been turned into a studio. I then managed to go to Byam Shaw School of Art at 16 and it started from there.
My parents encouraged me to do art. My dad had gone to art school for a year but he had to leave because he couldn’t afford it at that time. There was an interregnum period, so he left and went into advertising, the way a lot of artists went at that time. My mum, before she had kids, she was in continuity in films. They were up for me doing art.
Are there any artists that have particularly influenced your practice?
Originally it was the usual, so at that time during the sixties, I was into artists like Giacometti and Picasso. And then through getting involved in the anti-Vietnam demonstrations in London in ‘68, I wanted to find a way to make more political work, so I started looking at artists like Rauschenberg and people who use found imagery.
Did that mark your transition into photomontage?
Yes, I decided I wanted to make work about political reality. I started using photographs because, you know, a photograph does take you straight into reality. I felt that painting was too much about the history of the medium to talk about the subject.
So do you see yourself as a political artist?
Yes. I always say that Cezanne didn’t call himself an ‘apple artist’, and he painted a lot of apples, but I suppose it’s a bit different if you work with politics. I mean, I still think of myself as an artist or art worker, but I work with social and political imagery.
Some of my works aren’t so direct. But if it’s going go into the media, it has to be direct. Most of the imagery in the media is advertising - there’s millions and billions of pounds behind it - so one’s working in a very small area and you have to do something that’s going to get through and get noticed quite quickly, I think.
How would you describe your creative process?
A lot of it starts from the photograph rather than from an idea; the photograph creates the idea. So I look for images. It used to be picture libraries – magic places with lines of photographs – but now it’s more Google images and places like that. I merge the images together with my own photographs or with photographs from friends. With photomontage, you can connect politicians with the violence they’re perpetrating, unlike in documentary photography.
How did you get involved in working with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)?
I got involved with CND in ’79, when there was talk of cruise missiles being stationed at Greenham Common and Thatcher was on the warpath. I went to CND and suggested they use tougher images, as images of the nuclear bomb going off had become very acceptable. The second most popular poster for a time was a big airbrushed nuclear explosion printed with no contextual text, made to be hung in your room. What gets through very quickly is imagery, especially to young people. And montage was good because it’s not trying to say ‘this is real’, it’s trying to say this is someone’s critique of what’s going on. It encourages people to think critically.
We create and consume images very differently now. Do you think the power of the image is being lost as it becomes more ubiquitous?
Well, of course, there’s tons of people doing photomontage now and there’s a great transmission, globally, of imagery. It’s difficult to make something that is actually going to stick in that way, because people are always looking for the next thing. But while they’re ubiquitous, they’re individual images. You don’t see an image of refugees with Teresa May next to it - they’re separate. So there’s still a reason to create photomontage.
Sustaining an artistic practice is notoriously difficult. How have you managed to support yourself?
My work is not saleable in the sense that people don’t want it on their wall. It wasn’t made to be saleable. But I’ve always taught part-time and that’s how I’ve managed to survive as an artist and bring up a family. But it gets more difficult as teaching gets more managerial and funding gets cut. I’ve been quite privileged in the sense that I’ve managed to teach and make work. The danger is teaching and not making work. So, I used to just work all night and then go and teach.
What do you see as DACS’ role in this area?
DACS came along and it was an amazing thing to find this organisation that was there for artists and that also respected the work of the artist. You usually have to spend about a year getting money for doing this, that or the other. Suddenly, DACS were offering some reward for making art and for the work being out in the world. I think that is terrific, especially for me, because a lot of the work I do goes into books and newspapers.
You are referring to our Payback service, of which you’ve been a member for a few years. In what ways has it specifically supported you?
The royalties go back into my studio, and with a place like this [in east London], the rent goes up all the time, which is a problem now for young artists, especially in London. The royalties also go back into materials and living.
Payback also helps in terms of organising. It’s a way of keeping a diary of one’s work in that sense. In all my many years being an artist, DACS is the only organisation that’s ever come along and said, ‘We’ll look at your body of work and you’ll get paid for it’. Amazing!
Do you think copyright is something that artists need guidance and support on?
I think copyright’s got more complicated now because people are taking images without looking into who owns the copyright and asking for permission, which I always try and do. It’s especially important for photographers and for artists as well, because your work gets reproduced in books and elsewhere. Publishers often don’t pay much, so it’s really good that DACS is out there promoting the benefits of copyright for artists and distributing royalties.
As a lecturer, what key piece of advice do you give your students?
The main thing is, find the kind of work and medium you really want to work with and go with it. Don’t try and think of the art market or anything like that, because it doesn’t work in that way. The only way to keep it going as an artist is to be obsessed with your work and not with what’s going on outside. One’s got to be really focused on it.
Finally, what are you working on at the moment that we should know about?
At the moment, I’m working on a show for Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography
which runs from 1 - 31 May 2017. I’m working with Cat Phillipps and we’re doing an installation called State of the Nations
Has your artwork ever been published in UK books and magazines, or shown on TV? Get your share of millions in Payback royalties. Apply by 1 May:
Image: Peter Kennard in the studio. Photo by Brian Benson © Brian Benson, 2017.