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Martin Kemp vs John Gittings: Icons of Peace

The world famous Edinburgh International Festival has kicked off, beginning three weeks of the best the arts world has to offer. The Fringe Festival has countless alternative, weird, and wacky events happening all over the city, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival is underway. Throughout the Book Festival we’ll be bringing you sneak peeks of our authors’ talks and backstage debriefs so that, even if you can’t make it to Edinburgh this year, you won’t miss out on all the action.

Today, John Gittings and Martin Kemp will be discussing icons of peace. Human history is dominated by war, but can we forge a different narrative? In The Glorious Art of Peace, former Guardian journalist John Gittings argues that progress depends on a peaceful environment, identifying iconic proponents of peace such as Confucius and Gandhi. Art historian Martin Kemp‘s Christ to Coke looks at the creation of some of our peacetime icons and traces the things they have in common.

By John Gittings


Images of war are familiar to us in ancient sculpture and epic literature, and it is sometimes suggested that images of peace only occur in more modern times. Yet peace has always been as much a human concern as war, and if we look carefully we will find it early on in human artistic endeavour.

Homer’s Iliad is a challenging example. Can this chronicle of the bloodiest exploits of war also reflect the human quest for peace? In fact, woven into this narrative of war, there is a counter-narrative of peace — peace frustrated but very much desired. Homer’s account of the Shield of Achilles may even be regarded as the world’s first recorded example of anti-war art.

The shield which is being prepared by the heavenly blacksmith Hephaestus for the Greek hero Achilles to carry into battle should have been decorated — as such shields in the Mycenaean age always were — with fierce images of lions or the Medusa’s head to terrify the enemy. Instead Homer depicts in vivid detail a series of images of peace and plenty: a well-governed city, festivals and dancing, ploughing and the gathering of grapes. The only scene of war is of an armed ambush which has gone disastrously wrong. Homeric scholars have puzzled over this passage but its meaning is clear. This, Homer is telling us, is the peace to be preferred to war.

In literature as in art, the argument for peace was put as strenuously as the case for war, but it can be hard to locate. Bookshops and libraries are more likely to stock The Prince by Machiavelli — or his Art of War — than The Education of a Christian Prince by his exact contemporary Desiderius Erasmus — or his Complaint of Peace. The Oxford Reader on War (1994) is easier to find than the comparable Oxford Reader on Peace Studies (2000).

Without long periods of peace, human civilisation could not have developed, yet historians often regard peace merely as the “interval between war.” Thucydides relates at length the speeches in the Athenian assembly of those advocating war with Sparta; the objections of the peace party are given in a few lines. The rich narrative of peace thought and argument from Erasmus onwards, through Rousseau, Kant, and other thinkers of the Enlightenment into the 19th century is barely known today. Victor Hugo is celebrated for his novels, but his powerful speeches and poems on peace remain untranslated.

The argument from the mid-19th century onwards for international arbitration and disarmament, and for support of the League of Nations during the interwar years, tends to be written off as utopianism or “appeasement”. During the Cold War, peace was a partisan issue and the very word became suspect. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) had been universally admired, but his Massacre in Korea (1951) was dismissed as pro-Soviet propaganda.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Museo Reina Sofia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Depictions of war, with its massed arrays of weapons and warriors, are straight-forward and often routine, but peace requires more imagination. When the 1918 armistice was signed, Manet produced another of his great paintings of water-lilies. Chagall’s wonderful stained glass window in the United Nations is rich with peaceful symbolism. It is worth making the effort to discover, in our art and literature, the alternative imagery of peace.

The Chagall Window at United Nations, 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Gittings worked at The Guardian (UK) for twenty years. He is on the editorial team of the new Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace (2010) and is author of The Glorious Art of Peace: from the Iliad to Iraq (2012). Read Gittings on the real lessons of the Cuban Cold War crisis and World Humanitarian Day.

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By Martin Kemp


The cliché has it that “the devil has the best tunes”. Is it the case that war has produced more varied and memorable images than peace? Hell boasts a wider range of engrossing activities than Paradise. Even Dante struggled to evoke repeated images of celestial bliss. He clearly relished the word-painting of Hell and Purgatory.

What are the great icons of peace? Picasso’s Dove for the World Congress of Advocates of Peace in Paris? John Gittings has come up with a good set of candidates. Maybe it’s less problematic with literature than the visual arts.

It’s much easier to think of famous images of war, even including the great lost and incomplete battles painted by Leonardo and Michelangelo. Christian imagery is more blessed with vivid depictions and symbols of suffering than of spiritual peace.

Photography has produced indelible records of war, not least Nick Ut’s famous photograph of the napalmed girl running down a route one in Vietnam, which has clear affinities with Picasso’s Guernica. The photo and the painting serve to show that images that promote or can be used for anti-war stances are not the same as representations of peace in its own right.

Perhaps it is the case that peace is more easily defined in terms of its negatives rather than its positives, as John Gittings acknowledges. Peace is at its most basic a lack of conflict. It’s easier to show what is happening (i.e. violence) than what is not. Of the eleven key images in Christ to Coke probably only the heart is primarily evocative of wholly positive sentiments — unless we are devoted to Coke — but even here representations of broken hearts and the bleeding heart of Christ radically undermine the positive connotations.

There may be a parallel here with contemporary political debates, in which well-being and happiness have been suggested, entirely properly, as goals for society. But they are more difficult to define and above all measure than poverty, illness, malnutrition and homelessness. Happiness and peace may best be definable by an inner sense that we recognise it when it’s there, whereas war is defined by something very tangible that lies outside us.

The most compelling images of peace may be more elliptical and associative than direct. I am thinking of a radiant Turner sunset or a Corot of a sylvan idyll. There is obviously some kind of biological basis here, invoking environments that sustain our body and delight our senses. There are likely to be all kinds of cultural differences that shape how the basics are expressed.

All in all, the art of peace is a slippery but hugely important topic. We hope the audience at Edinburgh can help.

Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford. He is the author of Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, The Oxford History of Western Art, Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man, Leonardo, and Seen | Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope. He blogs at Martin Kemp’s This and That.

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Image credits: 
Logo courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival
Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Museo Reina Sofia. Copy of artwork used for the purposes of illustration in a critical commentary on the work. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Chagall Window at United Nations, 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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