Review of 'Pax Britannica: A Hellish Peace', Aquarium Gallery, London
When Peter Kennard was commissioned by Orange for their 'Peace on Earth' show he depicted the Virgin Mary with a globe replacing her face and a CND sign as a halo. Orange refused to use the image, considering it 'unfit for grandparents and small children'. This is hardly surprising. The media have scrupulously avoided any account of the reality of war. That is why this free exhibition of the response to war by over 18 major artists is so important. Packed into the tiny Aquarium Gallery, alongside the placards of anti-war demonstrations are drawings, paintings and photographs as well as photomontage, which are often disturbing, sometimes amusing but collectively make a powerful statement against war.
Many of these works contain a rawness which is truly shocking, and offers a refreshing alternative to the stale clichés offered up by the Turner Prize and the Saatchi Gallery. In James Boswell's ink drawings, civilians and soldiers become so enmeshed with weapons, chains and machines that they are indistinguishable from them - he was a private in Iraq during the 1940s. Jenny Matthews brings us up to the present day in her journey through Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.
There is a remarkable range of expression and themes covered by the exhibition. John Keane's paintings of Palestine are mounted beside Steve Bell's cartoons of Bush and Blair. Richard Hamilton's 'War Games' with its television dripping with blood, and Ralph Steadman's triptych attack the role of the media in selling us and distancing us from war. There is also work dealing with the assault on civil liberties and the horrors of Guantanamo Bay.
In drawing together anti-war art made over many decades the exhibition shows how wars, and the movements against them, have constantly inspired artists. Steadman, for example, explains how during the Vietnam War, 'When Nixon was in power I was really loving going for the jugular, trying to do something with him that would make him go ouch, and I used that phrase of Chuck Coulson, one of his chiefs of staff, who said, "Get them by the balls and hearts and minds will follow," and I drew that. Sometimes if you put words into a picture it's awful - doing it as graphically as that, makes it almost disgusting to say it.'
In particular the strength of photomontage as a medium stands out. In Gee Voucher's reinvention of the iconic poster 'Your Country Needs YOU', Uncle Sam is replaced with a blown-up hand, strewn over a barbed wire fence - a photograph taken during the Vietnam War. 'Welcome Home', at first sight a picture postcard of a family reunion with a young soldier, on closer inspection shows his face to be half blown away.
The exhibition's strength is the sharp portrayal of the horrors of war and the monstrous responsibility of the powerful in this process. But it doesn't really deal with the causes of war, something which photomontage and cartoons have been able to do in the past. This is perhaps understandable given the way in which the privatisation of art spaces during the last two decades has increasingly squeezed out political or radical art. Peter Kennard, whose Barbican exhibition of pictures dealing with the 1973 military coup in Chile was covered up for a visit by Chilean officials, argues 'Censorship of culture is something that one does not speak of in the free market... but in the visual arts it is an increasing determinant.' This is surely something that will change as artists continue to contribute to, and be influenced by, an increasingly confident and politicised anti-war movement.