Peace: The Biography of a Symbol

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am

Peace: The Biography of a Symbol

by Ken Kolsbun

National Geographic HK$260

Those who grew up in the west in the 1960s or 1970s might remember scrawling the circular peace symbol on a school exercise book or a pair of flared Levi's. The symbol, which is both iconic and durable, has been used variously to express anti-nuclear sentiments, anti-war feelings and, more recently, environmental concerns.

Unlike its ideological opposite the swastika - an ancient symbol that has also represented brotherly love at some points in history - the peace logo is a recent invention. This illustrated book by photographer Ken Kolsbun, who has photographed hundreds of peace badges and flags during his career, details the humble sign's evolution into a modern icon.

The title Peace: The Biography of A Symbol is a misnomer and those expecting a work of art history will be disappointed. The book focuses as much on peace movements as the emblem's design and is really an affectionate biography of the counterculture movement that began in America and Europe in the 1950s and gained international prominence in the next decade. Some parts, such as sections on singers Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, don't mention the peace symbol at all. But it is all worthy stuff and it contains some forgotten social history.

Art history-wise, the book's strength is in its photographs, many of which were taken by Kolsbun. Readers can trace the way the sign was adapted for new causes by looking at the pictures.

It is rare for powerful symbols like this to be created: they usually wash around humanity for ages before being adopted by a movement. The Christian cross, for instance, came from an ancient design and was not a Christian symbol until Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor, adopted it in the fourth century. (The most prevalent Christian symbol until then was the fish.) The peace symbol dates from 1958, when it was created by Englishman Gerald Holtom, a textile designer from Twickenham, for the first demonstration against nuclear weapons. Holtom wanted a design that intimated a drooping, doom-laden face, which he realised could be expressed by combining two semaphore signals, for the letters 'N' and 'D'. The two letters also stood, of course, for nuclear disarmament - and a peace icon was born.

Holtom made all the protest banners himself for the 1958 march and handed them out to demonstrators. He rendered most in black and white so they would be easily identifiable on monochrome television sets and in press photographs. Some he painted in gold leaf so they would be illuminated by car headlights. A few months after the march Holtom worked with a ceramic artist to make some peace badges bearing the logo, 'In the event of a nuclear war, these fired pottery badges would be among the few human artifacts to survive the nuclear inferno.'

The rest of the book details how the symbol spread across the globe.

In the 1960s, an American anti-nuclear group called Women Strike For Peace combined the logo with the Stars and Stripes. Later in the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam war movement adopted it as a symbol. The peace design was powerful enough to cause controversy. In Iowa in 1965, children were sent home from school for wearing the sign on armbands to protest against the war. The issue reverberated all the way up to the Supreme Court, which decided that the children's right to wear it was protected by the First Amendment.

It has also shown up in other unlikely places: soldiers in Vietnam made badges in the shape of grenade pins and a remarkable picture in the book shows an American armoured vehicle flying a peace flag in Laos in 1971.

In the 1970s the symbol was taken up by groups opposed to nuclear power, since when it has been appropriated by various ecological action concerns.

Naturally, the symbol has become a fashion icon and has also appeared on everything from sweet wrappers to cigarette packets without losing any of its potency. Indeed, this 'biography' would benefit from a psychological analysis of why it became so successful; nevertheless, it is an affecting look at an enduring work of graphic design.