BLOG Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 113

‘Dedicated to all Defenders of Human Freedoms’: Paul Peter Piech at The People’s History Museum, Manchester

This exhibition runs until 12 February 2017 and is free to enter

The art and philosophy of Paul Peter Piech feels extraordinarily vital at this moment in our history. Piech’s artistic energies and social conscience were inseparable forces, and the exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester presents us with works of protest, provocation and deep beauty. In Piech we find a spirit whose aesthetic struggles were absolutely congruent with his principles of protest and activism, and what emerges here is a unified vision in which artistic action, public disobedience and life itself strive towards the same condition of dynamic defiance and the rejection of passivity.

Born in 1920 in New York, Piech was the son of Ukrainian immigrants. He began his artistic education at Cooper Union School of Art, but halted his studies during the Second World War and spent the conflict in East Anglia as ground-crew with the Eighth Air Force. While he was there Piech met his future wife Irene Tomkins, a nurse from Aberdare.

Immediately following the war Piech returned to New York to finish his studies, before crossing the Atlantic again in order to marry Irene. His education continued at the Chelsea School of Art and during the late forties and early fifties Piech worked in advertising as a commercial graphic designer.

As Piech made his name with high profile campaigns for the likes of BP, ICI and Kia-Ora his private artistic practice blossomed, combining the hallucinatory qualities of modern advertising with the raw, violent energies of improvised freehand composition.

His early works – for the most part woodcuts and lithographic prints – possess the stark, imposing clarity of cycladic art. In their depictions of the horrors of World War II concentration camps, they also establish Piech’s lifelong commitment to anti-war activism through a direct approach to subject matter and mark-making. His figures are staring and encased in barbed wire, and the result is a kind of honest and devastating madness – a violent refusal to look away in the face of a violent, psychotic world.

While Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee are cited as key influences I detected traces of other, less abstract, guiding forces. For me, the works of William Blake and Käthe Kollwitz stand firmly behind Piech’s approach. And these figures are worth bearing in mind, since it is their merging of figurative, documentary procedures with aesthetic violence which distinguishes them as committed artist-activists in the widest sense. Like Blake and Kollwitz, Piech’s art refuses to be passively ‘consumed’ by the viewer. Instead, his prints ask you to look in a violent, dynamic mode: one which propels you into the sphere of action rather than meditative contemplation.

In this, Piech is an artist whose work incites and provokes a response: he calls us not to regard his work, but to be moved – quite literally spurred into action – by them. Moving through the exhibition a brutal comic-strip commentary emerges, with Piech’s symbols and slogans rendered in a combination of stark black and white and hyper-bright technicolour. This technique – approaching each of his subjects with the same aesthetic palette and attitude – carries with it an unexpectedly effective charge.

By applying the same violent aesthetic across the breadth of his subject matter – whether to a legion of nuclear warheads, images of Martin Luther King, a portrait of Margaret Thatcher spouting ‘Falklands’, jazz musicians and poets, or a triptych of American flags containing stars transformed into swastikas – Piech successfully communicates a rarely acknowledged truth: that we are all made of powerful, violent and primal energies. It is how we choose to channel these energies which distinguishes the actions of our lives. For while Piech developed his artistic practice in a commercial advertising agency, he understood how he might repurpose those creative energies in the context of socially engaged activism.

In 1986, Piech settled in Porthcawl, throwing himself into Welsh cultural life and the social issues affecting Wales. Through Taurus Press he published the work of many Welsh poets (in both Welsh and English), and continued to make art that was indistinguishable from the politics of citizenship and the activity of protest.

It is impossible to leave this exhibition without re-examining one’s own sense of duty as a citizen of the world. Piech inspires an attitude of hope through his own restless truth-seeking, resistance and protest. But more than that, his work is a rallying cry to each one of us to protest, call for action and agitate against the violence around us. And with the emergence of potentially fascist world leaders like Donald Trump, Piech’s commitment to the expression of dissent in the face of dangerous political forces provides a persuasive example of the artist-activist for whom apathy is simply not an option.

Amy McCauley is a recent PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University and also Poetry Submissions editor of New Welsh Review.


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