Peter Kardia 1925 – 2019

Peter Kardia was an inspirational art school teacher who taught a generation of British sculptors and artists at both St. Martin’s School of Art and at the Royal College of Art between the years of 1960 to 1986.

Peter, unusually for the time, defined himself as an art educationalist and not as an artist who also taught art.  His formidable studio presence derived not from using his own work as a model for the analysis of what the student had to offer, but from his interrogation of the student’s own decision making process, leaving the student to provide their own answers.

Peter was born in Norwich in 1925 and educated at Norwich school before being conscripted and serving as a captain in the Indian Army where he witnessed the horrors of Partition.  After leaving the army in 1948 he enrolled at The Slade School of Art and studied sculpture under the direction of Alfred Gerard. Here Peter was noticed by Henry Moore, one of the visiting tutors, who subsequently invited him to become one of his assistants. After staying with Moore for a year he took up a post at an art college in South Africa, teaching and living in the mainly Zulu area of the country. On returning to the UK in 1959 he began teaching at a number of different art colleges including the sculpture school of the Royal College where Bernard Meadows invited him to teach regularly one day a week – a post he held up until 1976 where he taught over the years a vast range of talented post-graduate students including Alison Wilding, Carl Plackman and Richard Wentworth.

It was at this point in 1964 that the most significant phase of Peter’s career began. He was invited by Frank Martin the head of the sculpture department at St. Martin’s School of Art to lead an integrated studies programme that required new students to initially work within both the disciplines of painting and sculpture as well as a wider conceptual framework. This initiative was as a direct result of the recommendations of the Coldstream Report which freed the study of fine art from its craft and vocational status and awarded it parity with other academic degree course studies. This programme ran until 1967 when the college  decided that this particular approach should end.

It was during this period that Peter encountered the varied approaches to sculpture exemplified by students such as Richard Long, Bruce McClean and Gilbert and George.

It was also during this period that I first encountered Peter myself as a second year student. After completing the integrated course, every week I showed the developments of my work to my tutor Garth Evans. who was often accompanied by Peter, Together they would conduct a forensic examination of what I had to offer.

The discussion deriving from the presented work, often took place almost in the absence of myself. The work became a fact in the world sanctioned as such by the scrutiny now being afforded it. The confusion and intuition that gave rise to it were processed and handed back to me as a series of astute questions begging answers that were usually deferred. The work had been elevated as a subject in a philosophical debate whose proxy contributors might include Kant, Sartre, Hegel and other luminaries from the pantheon of phenomenological thought. A line of newspapers, some wire netting and a length of string would , as it were, stand in for my part in the discussion. Only later in quiet reflection could I retrieve my place in the dialogue. Through these critiques the work became annexed to the history of ideas and not limited to its place in the history of art. (Malcolm Le Grice  commented that Peter rarely referred to the history of art in his critical discussions. This was true. The point at issue was always the work currently being scrutinized, how it impacted upon the consciousness and what logical account could be made of it). The direction of Peter’s critique was not to point out what one had failed to do, but to expose what one had done, but failed to see.  However Peter always left the student still in firm ownership of his own work.

After a two year period running the Advanced sculpture course for largely mature and foreign students, where Peter claimed he learnt as much from the students as they did from him,  in 1969 Frank Martin asked Peter to devise and lead a new first year course for the sculpture degree students. What resulted became notorious and known as the “Locked Room” course.

After much discussion with his teaching group, a programme of study was devised that specifically addressed the student’s response to material, place and time –  fundamental philosophical issues. The resulting project that entailed students being locked into the studio caused much controversy. The psychological stress on individual students was eventually considered to be a positive rather than a negative issue, although the alarmed Principal of the college employed a psychiatrist for a day to determine this. Students such as Richard Deacon survived the “ordeal” and lived to tell the tale.

The turmoil caused by this project resulted in a major re-structuring of the department which Peter ultimately found unsatisfactory. so when in 1973 he was offered a full time post at the Royal College, he accepted it.

Although originally invited to teach under the auspices of the sculpture school, Peter was eventually able to set up a new independent department with its own budget entitled the Department of Environmental Media. This course catered to post graduate students whose main interest concerned the use of contemporary media such as film, photography, audio as well as the ability to access more conventional media together with textual work. Peter at last had the authority and resources to create his own ideal working environment for students – an art school within an art school.

This department’s philosophy is best detailed by Peter’s own description: “..the student will work to a general brief concerning the arts in their most extreme capacities, not delimited by convention or norm. The ambition for such work is of course that it should function as part of a reflexive response to culture and cultural meaning, proposing itself polemically against its own history”.

The College’s support for this department came to an end with the change of Rector in 1986. (Making Room for Environmental Media)

After not meeting Peter for many years, in 2008 I approached him to ask if he would be interested in curating a group exhibition I had in mind involving mature artists exhibiting two pieces of work each, one from the beginning of their career and one contemporary piece. Peter agreed and chose 28 artists from the long list of his ex-students. The show entitled From Floor to Sky opened in 2010accompanied by a hardback book of the same title with the sub-title of “The experience of the art school studio and the teaching of Peter Kardia”. The project served as a timely tribute to Peter’s unique teaching career and provided Peter with an unusual opportunity to assess that career.

Fittingly, the disparate nature of the exhibition bore a striking resemblance to an end of course degree show. For some of the exhibiting artists the show looked back over 40 years. For Peter it looked back over a career dedicated to the understanding and explication of art practice..

No portrait of Peter would be complete without mentioning his life-long socialist views and his tender regard for the natural world. Peter’s essential character however combined a forceful intellect grounded in extensive reading of philosophy, largely from the phenomenological tradition, with an abiding interest in the antics of the genuinely creative artist, no matter how seemingly odd, or at first sight incomprehensible, the product. His passion was for “good” art in all its forms no matter what the tradition.  The example of this exacting passion no doubt lodges itself in the intellectual space of many of the studios of those artists who were fortunate enough to have known him.

Peter died aged 93 at his home in Dorset leaving Carolyne his wife and a daughter and son from a previous marriage, Jane and Roland.

Roderick Coyne  09 / 05 / 2019

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