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John Piper in the 1930s:
Abstraction on the Beach

David Fraser Jenkins
and Frances Spalding

192 pages, 120 color illustrations
Merrell Publishers, © May 2003
ISBN 1-85894-223-3
Hardcover, $50.00

Piper's 1936 collages splutter with delight as he registers, with crudely cut or torn paper and scribbles of ink, visual metaphors for the harbour and boats at Newhaven, the chirruping waves and distant lighthouse at Dungeness and the trim Victorian boarding-houses at Aberaeron.

from John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach

He was a versatile artist throughout his lifetime, working in stained glass, stage design, tapestries and book illustrations as well as painting in oils and watercolors; a recognized and respected figure, best known for his landscape and architectural paintings. Unfortunately, what might provide some of the deepest interest in this study of 20th-century British artist John Piper's early work -- a highlight of the techniques and themes being foreshadowed here, which would reappear throughout his mature years as a painter -- is absent. John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach assumes familiarity with its subject, his place in the scheme of 20th-century art and his later ouevre, and restricts itself to its own well-defined boundaries of the 1930s. Neither of the authors fully mines the richness available in the unusual and energetically diverse offerings of Piper's first years as an artist, in its relation to his later work, or in a fully vibrant discussion of his early forays into abstraction. Still, the book has significant strength and appeal. The artwork itself is the star: encompassing styles from watercolor to string-forms to constructions involving wood and sand, Piper's early work includes a surprisingly varied, surprisingly strong showing across a variety of modern genres.

Born in Surrey in 1903, Piper's first serious excursions into art came in the 1930s, when his father's unexpected death freed him from the family business. Inspired by Picasso and Braque, and associating with Nash, Moore, Nicholson, and Calder, Piper's absorption of, and experimentation with, their ideas and the tenets of Modernism was a parade of changing, versatile vision. The eighty-four plates in John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach include watercolors and mixed media, stage set designs, architectural collages, and ink-and-wash renditions of lacy building facades and dramatic gorges in the Welsh towns of Brighton and Hafod. One pleasure of Piper's early work is in observing its evolution from representation through abstraction and back again, and in its almost limitless surety. Abstract Construction (1934: oil with sand on wood: 21 x 24-3/4 in.) hearkens to the inner workings of a clock or motor with its rods both curved and straight, and sand-colored 'counterweights'. Its rhythm, linearity and bold color, glorifying the timed, cycled, machined precision of the modern era, are in strong contrast to the lively representational chaos of the later work Newhaven (1937: ink, gouache and collage: 15 x 19in.) where the sea's edge and its clusters of buildings and ships are rendered as strong forms of cut paper punctuated with fitful wiggles of black ink. In Painting 1935 (1935: oil and canvas on board: 15-1/2" x 11-1/2") Piper hosts a show of illusive depth with the shifting, stage-set-like geometric planes of pure abstraction. Frances Spalding notes:

One characteristic discerned by Piper in this article was a native genius for the handling of strong linear rhythm. In his own abstracts, which work primarily with shape and colour, line plays a minor but nevertheless significant role. Often it is reduced to a broken line the stitches its way across the picture space. In the largest abstraction that Piper produced in 1935, a ghostly row of dots, like perforations, pricks the left-hand side of the canvas from the bottom to the top. It not only aerates the brown and purple background but, in its lightness and fragility, also serves to alleviate the heaviness of shapes elsewhere. Seemingly one of the least significant ingredients, it is in fact more crucial to the balance and harmony of the whole than the structural repetitions of colour and shape.

The book also includes early examples of Piper's lifelong fascination with stained glass, in the form of gouache works that re-create its blocky shapes and illuminate glow. Piper's studies of these compositions, as well as his photography of Anglo-Saxon church sculpture, provided him an awareness of form and mass, honing his knowledge of "the difficulty of creating the illusion of space" and awakening "a delight in complex patterns and contrasts of shape." As Picasso had reached back into the depths of time for the primitive masks of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Piper found elements applicable to his modern works in beloved and deeply-studied creations of Medieval Britain.

Painting 1935, 1935
Oil and canvas on board
15-1/2" x 11-1/2"

Frances Spalding's 60-page annotated essay mingles biographical information with discussions of the era, now speaking of Piper, now of his wife Myfanwy, their art journal AXIS, or their milieu of the likes of Jean Helion, Ben Nicholson, and Henry Moore. The essay is at its best in conveying a sense of the excitement surrounding British Modernism in the 1930s, the infusion of Modernism into Britain from a European avant-garde, a sense of Cubism, Surrealism, Dada as new and fresh. Excerpts detailing AXIS, a pioneer review of abstract art, breathe life into an art mode seized upon eagerly, argued and written about seriously and with passion. Piper himself is an elusive figure in this essay; just when one relaxes into a section yielding growing familiarity with the artist, Spalding seems to be talking about AXIS again. Still, she does bring out the artist's desire to use these visual metaphors, garnered from so many sources, to represent English surroundings specifically. Piper was influenced by the art he viewed and the artists with whom he associated, but Modernism, feeding in from the Continent, never submerged his desire to "acknowledge his Englishness and to return to, and possibly revive in modern terms, certain vigorous native traditions."

Further discussion of the art and its evolution follows in the sixteen plate sections, each opening with a one- to two-page introduction by David Fraser Jenkins. Jenkins, who has published widely on Piper, traces themes, interests and influences as manifesting throughout the decade, with biographical detail and notes on exhibition of the works as applicable. Scattering these essays among the individual sections breaks up the flow of thought, and at times they seem to linger too long in particulars of construction; but Jenkins's expertise on Piper comes to the fore in the minute details he is able to provide about the artist's inspirations, motivations, and in notation on the aesthetic development of Piper's work.

Piper was also a reviewer of art, books, plays, and films, a profession picked up during his early years as an alternative source of income. John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach includes four selections as coda. Chief among them is an essay on modern art entitled 'Lost, a Valuable Object'. Though noted by Spalding as more Myfanwy's style, it is nevertheless a delightful romp:

And now where are we? Where is the subject, or the object, or the subject or sub-object, or whatever it is your fancy to call it? One thing is certain about all activities since cubism: artists everywhere have done their best to find something to replace the object that cubism destroyed. They have visited museums, and skidded back through the centuries, across whole continents and civilizations in their search. They have been frantic and calm by turns. They have adopted simple means, and very complicated ones. They have gone a long way in space as well as time. In this country, for instance, we find Paul Nash identifying all nature with a Bronze Age standing stone, and Ben Nicholson even assisting at world-creation. Henry Moore has landed us back in the stomach of pre-history, while Paul Nash, again, leaves us with the bare sea-washed bones of it.

A further essay, 'Decrepit Glory: a Tour of Hafod', in its verbal study of a romantic, ruined town in Wales, reflects the return to both realism and landscape at the close of the decade, and with the onset of World War II, that was taking place in Piper's art and was to lead into his mature style of places and evocative ruined buildings.

John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach is the first book to focus on the formative years of the work of this 20th-century British artist. On the one hand it offers a vibrant sense of the excitement surrounding British Modernism in the 1930s; on the other, it presents a selection of eighty-four plates of Piper's early work, rhythmic, appealing, and diverse. Although the authors could have taken the idea fully to fruition, and opened up its focus to include this seminal period in relation to Piper's later works, these two main strengths of John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach present much to see and enjoy. And you may, incidentally, find yourself captivated by the plates, even if you think you 'don't like' abstract (or semi-abstract) art: visions from a time when it was all amazingly, exploratorily, delightfully new.

John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach is the companion volume to an exhibition of the same name at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from April 1-June 22, 2003 (http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk).

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.

John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.

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