John Piper: Effortless Mastery of Composition and Technique

Jack Castle looks at a new London exhibition of John Piper, an artist who is long overdue for reevaluation.

John Piper is strangely ageless although he looks old, perhaps partly because fashion began to turn away from him. In the same way that the traditional or canonical route of art history began to bend away from Walter Sickert even though he was, in talent, training and pedigree, the heir to a long and predictable tradition tragically redirected by Picasso and Matisse, one can’t help but feel that America bent Post-war art history away from John Piper and onto itself. Although not neglected, the stoic, technically accomplished, English John Piper and his resoluteness in not following painting into Abstract Expressionism or beyond means that he is also not affected by its demise or rapid evolution. T.S. Eliot said that ‘history is now and England’; John Piper is both as well, and history, unlike fashion, is never really out of style even though (and at the expense of that) it isn’t really ever “in”.

The Portland Gallery exhibition is a good chance to see Piper up close. Although hung seemingly without user-friendliness in mind (the works are all given without dates, making it hard to distinguish a progression of style and rather assuming you know it already), there is enough here, and enough of it famous-looking, to give a good idea of what Piper is about. There is work stretching from the 40s just-post-war figurative period and the second, British “call to order” that gives us the beautifully dramatic works of country churches and old country houses, to his 60s abstracts and collages.

Although he began as an abstract artist in the interwar years, associated with Ben Nicholson’s Seven and Five Society and making abstract work with a constructivist lean, his most well-known work is figurative, beginning in earnest during his commission as part of  the ‘war artist’s scheme’ – designed to document the effects of war on the British landscape. This role saw him painting bombed out buildings, including Coventry Cathedral the morning after it was damaged, and set him on a more-or-less English, figurative direction for the rest of his life: through the brown 50s, freeing up in the late 60s into a looser kind of figuration that verges on abstract, sometimes pulled into shape and landscape by careful line work and a title, sometimes fixed in place by a geographical title and more suggestive of place than representative. His constructivist and pure abstract lineage does arise, not least in this Portland Gallery exhibition, in his sketches for commercial commissions, such as those here for the stained glass windows for Coventry Cathedral (nos. 20 and 21) and designs for the North Thames Gas Board (nos. 37 – 43).

Here, you discover that Piper was an extremely gifted painter. From his reputation this should come as no surprise, but paintings of country churches can seem a bit ‘adorable’, and Piper is done no favours by photographs and reproductions of his work. What you see in the flesh is a balance between the energy of a very dynamic composition as a whole, precisely circumscribed into form by careful, skilful and understated pen work.

Taking ‘St Nicholas, Alcester’ (1986) – produced in limited edition of 100 to raise money for the restoration of St Nicholas’ 14th century tower – you can see Piper’s careful attention to composition; placing the lane on the right running directly away from the viewer into the distance and the picture space, while the lane running perpendicular to it has a kind of dynamic curve (emphasised by the viewer’s angle on looking at the corner of the church wall). Both are joined by the over-arching and somewhat ominous sky that is given a dome-like shape, and this movement of the sky also seems to pull the church’s shadows with it. These two streets and the leaning sky-dome encircle the church which is fixed in place by its clock, almost surrealistically flat on the picture surface. The result is a kind of dynamic swirl and arch of colour, moving almost beneath and independently of the picture’s subject – like the difference between Cézanne’s apples and brushwork – which Piper plucks precisely into figuration by deft black lines. The wrought iron bars that hold the light above St Nicholas’ gate are so precise in their form, so not awkward, that given the awkwardness of their angle and shape the one line of Piper’s that makes them is almost miraculous.

His easy mastery of composition and technique creates something of a perfect storm, and he is one of the few artists with whom the idea that the “soul” of something can be captured through expressive pictorial rather than Realistic means actually works. Piper enhances the subject as a subject, rather than the subject’s being enhanced by the artist being an artiste. This empathetic impressionism – opposed almost diametrically to Abstract Expressionism – has kept Piper old and fresh. He might not be world-beatingly fashionable, but he is exactly what we used to expect of an artist and still appreciate when we see it. He doesn’t raise questions or challenge our perceptions – the beauty of his art is that he has already solved the problems of both.

John Piper, Paintings and Works on Paper, Portland Gallery, 7th – 28th March 2013. **** – 4 Stars

Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2013

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