Corita Kent: Power Up

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The cultural explosions that took place amid the social and political upheavals of 1960s America threw up extraordinary new forms of expression that articulated incendiary challenges to state injustices and atrocities of that postwar era.

Corita Kent was a radical artist, activist, designer and art educator whose exuberant, subversive and at times controversial work revolutionised typographical design and cried out against injustice. Corita seized pop art by the throat and set it to work for human liberation.

Born in 1918, Corita became Catholic nun when she was just 18 and began studying and teaching in the Immaculate Heart College’s progressive art department in Los Angeles. Silk-screen printmaking meant she could make multiple copies of an image — something she saw as more democratic than high-price unique artworks.

Her early prints explored spiritual and nature themes with striking originality and freshness, drawing on Byzantine and modernist art, and bore the beginnings of her experimentation with hand-drawn text. It was this uplifting fusion of words and the visual that went on to dramatically transform her work from message-art into political action.

As you step into this show at the House of Illustration — the biggest ever UK exhibition of Corita’s work — dozens of vibrant, startling, graphic, complex posters appear to shake with anger on the walls. She steals images from Life and Newsweek magazines and rams them into additional images and text — sometimes a single word, sometimes, daringly, whole chunks of text — beautifully inscribed and angrily scrawled: speeches, sermons and poetry.

Sources include e.e. cummings (her favourite; his love poetry adorns a poster, pictured below, supporting a couple whose interracial marriage made them criminals), Anne Stevenson, Dostoevsky and Helen Keller.

One poster juxtaposes a Newsweek cover promising a “Profile of the Viet Cong” with the notorious diagram of a slave ship, kidnapped Africans packed in like inanimate cargo, and Walt Whitman’s “I am the hounded slave” — thus drawing a parallel between the genocidal origins of the American state and its continuing imperialist project in Vietnam.

Another piece, “phil and dan” shows two priests who broke into a US government office, stole documents for drafting men to fight in Vietnam, and then burned the papers with homemade napalm. Corita adds excerpts from the priests’ trial in which Daniel Berrigan offered “our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children”.

Corita said, “What I do, it’s illumination — it’s like what the old monks used to do, taking a word and joining it with something visually exciting which shows a kind of reverence for what the word says.”

She appropriated signs and advertising slogans to amplify her artistic philosophy that the manufactured world and the natural world are equally worthy of creative examination. The film clips at the end show her teaching her students to “see” the built environment as artists and cavorting with other nuns and students in performance-art “happenings”. An exercise with young people has them sit in silence to watch a sunset and think about people all over the world, then write and draw after the contemplation.

Unlike exhibition spaces which stifle ideology in art work, the politics here are positively celebrated, but I’d like to know more about Corita’s relationship to the movement. Her revolt powers out of a colour-filled wallspace which has been designed by the Fraser Muggeridge studio. It’s invigorating but I wondered if it was perhaps a little pristine for Corita’s anti-poverty invective.

Vitrines display fascinating and playful experimental publications by the (obviously well-funded) Immaculate Heart art department. Corita was appreciated by her contemporaries and supported by the department. However, letters also on show express considerable squeamishness from the church hierarchy about her use of religious words and images. They tried to shut her up but realised they had a genius on their hands.

Corita gave up being a nun in 1968 and became a professional artist and designer, specialising in public and political art work and carrying on producing until her death in 1986. It was a real privilege to discover this dazzling but humble innovator and I enthusiastically recommend this show. For left wing artists and art-lovers, it’s essential.