Exhibition Review: John Piper in the 1930s. ‘Abstraction on the Beach’.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London,1 April to 22 June 2003; the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, July to 7 September 2003.

Catalogue edited by David Fraser Jenkins and Frances Spalding, 192pp, published by Merrell Publishers in association with Dulwich Picture Gallery, London £29.95, ISBN 1 85894 223 3

John Piper has a reputation which, from a financial point of view, will be the envy of many 20th century British artists. Many corporate boardrooms in the UK contain a print of a work by Piper, to such an extent that his work is, at least through that medium, far more widely known than the work of many of his contemporaries. On the other hand, from the artistic point of view, it has not been generally regarded as entirely satisfactory to have a reputation based on widely available prints which are bland enough to be acceptable in an office environment and his critical reputation as an important British artist of the 20th century has suffered in proportion to his commercial fame.

A new exhibition at the Dulwich Art Gallery shows how Piper’s work developed in the 1930s (he was born in 1903). Anybody approaching his work from a knowledge of the later work (and that is going to be most of those attending this exhibition) may be surprised by the work on show. Piper’s work in the 1930s was driven by experiment. As with so many artists at that time, he perused the copies of Cahiers d’Art which he could lay his hands on and he experimented with techniques which he read about in that magazine. So, for example, he picked up on the use of collage, especially collage mixed with other mediums, such as pen and ink or watercolour. (He seems particularly to have followed Braque in this). He also latched onto the use of string, albeit briefly after seeing reproductions of the work of Hans Arp, and, strikingly, he had a phase of almost pure abstract work whilst under the influence of Ben Nicholson. (In my view, the purely abstract work is the weakest on display here, both derivative and tentative and the impression is given that Piper quickly dropped it when he could and returned to figuration). This exhibition, therefore, covers quite a variety of different types of work. There are hints as to the later typically “Piper” style. In particular, for example, he took some photographs of Anglo-Saxon church sculptures and also made copies of stained glass windows. Some of the collage work from the later 1930’s began to look like preparations for the later dramatically colourful historically-influenced architectural and landscape works. As was seen a few years ago at the Imperial War Museum, Piper’s work of the 1940’s had already settled into a style which was then familiar throughout the rest of his long career (he died in 1992).

This then is an important exhibition. It does something which an exhibition can, but does not always, do: it gives us a new way of seeing an artist whose work was thought to be familiar. It also, in this case, helps to destroy any smugness we may have about thinking we know about Piper; and it also shatters any illusion we might have had about Piper’s limitations. Piper clearly developed as a thoughtful and carefully experimental artist before finding his comfortable mature style. That style itself, particularly now we see where it came from, needs reassessing. The emphasis on colour and form, which the purely abstract pictures inevitably had, together with the accompanying fragmentation of the picture surface, are features which had an influence on the later style, with its often strong and dramatic colouring and sharply defined forms. Also, much of the later work has a lot of focus on texture, a feature perhaps influenced by this early use of collage. It should certainly be stated very clearly that the later style was not some sort of parody of a neo-romantic vision of an earlier England. It was something much more serious than that. Piper hasn’t been helped by one of his earlier admirers being John Betjeman, because association with Betjeman’s peculiar personal style of eccentricity is not helpful when seeking for the signs of a major artistic talent. Much more interesting and revealing would be to put Piper’s work alongside that of his exact contemporary, Graham Sutherland, to see how the two substantial bodies of work developed in comparison with each other. I think it is probably generally thought that Sutherland’s work was more unusual and experimental and, perhaps, less commercial than Piper’s work. Now seeing Piper’s work in a longer perspective, it seems to me that any imbalance between the two can be corrected and the real extent of Piper’s originality and achievement can be seen more clearly.

The accompanying catalogue is beautifully produced. There is an essay by Frances Spalding and brief introductions by David Fraser Jenkins to each category of works shown. The only complaint possible is that one would have preferred more text, analysing in further detail the fascinating experiments which Piper was trying out.