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John Piper

The Forties


David Fraser Jenkins


London: Philip Wilson 2012 (2000]

Paperback. 144 p. ISBN 978-0856675348. £19.95


Reviewed by Sophie Aymes

Université de Bourgogne (Dijon)



John Piper is a leading English artist of the twentieth century. He was part of the avant-garde in the 1930s and can be said to have come of age in the 1940s when he achieved an idiosyncratic blend of abstract and picturesque art that brought him full public recognition. David Fraser Jenkins’s John Piper : The Forties provides a thorough exploration of the artist’s work in the decade during which he produced his iconic wartime pictures. Although the focus is on his pictorial work, the book does justice to this polymath’s multiple talents. John Piper: The Forties is the exhibition catalogue that was published on the occasion of the exhibition held at the Imperial War Museum in 2000 and curated by David Fraser Jenkins. Jenkins had previously curated the 1983 retrospective exhibition of Piper’s work at the Tate Gallery and edited the exhibition catalogue.

When it was first published in 2000, this catalogue provided a landmark in the burgeoning critical appraisal of late modernism. Piper’s work has since then been discussed in a variety of publications such as Sara Wasson's Urban Gothic of the Second World War : Dark London (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). In 2003 Jenkins also co-published John Piper in the 1930s : Abstraction on the Beach with art historian Frances Spalding, the author of a large number of monographs on modernist, late modernist and neo-romantic artists. Noteworthy is her recent John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: University Press, 2009). John Piper in the 1930s is the companion piece of the work reviewed here. Jenkins also contributed an essay on printmaking in Orde Levinson's revised edition of Prints of John Piper : Quality and Experiment : A Catalogue Raisonne´, 1923-91 (Lund Humphries, 2010). John Piper : The Forties is prefaced by Robert Crawford, Director General of the Imperial War Museum at the time when the book was published, who stresses the key role played by Piper as a war artist during the Second World War. Five sections organised in chronological sequences explore his aesthetic of architecture and landscape, as well as his record of ruins and wartime destruction.

The opening chapter, “The Painter of Architecture”, is a general introduction to Piper’s work in the 1940s. It gives a biographical outline and stresses the importance of the formative years during which he grew into “a painter of the buildings of Britain, while developing the language of an abstract artist” [8] as his selective eye enabled him to simplify shapes while recording the picturesqueness of decaying buildings and ruins. The patronage of Osbert Sitwell bears testimony to his role in depicting stately homes and to his relatively narrow audience. The following chapters provide a chronological examination of his works and projects during the years leading up to the war and subsequently as a major war artist.

The second chapter, “Abstraction Becomes a Place 1936-8”, focuses on the shift from abstraction to figurative landscape painting, with illuminating comments on the importance of the coastline and of collages as transitional site and medium. Like many artists at a time of impending war, Piper became aware of the necessity to start planning reconstruction. At that stage, he was part of an international network of artists, writers and art critics, such as Alexander Calder and Jean Hélion, with whom his wife, Myfanwy Evans, co-edited the avant-garde magazine Axis from 1935 to 1937. Piper became involved in the Group Theatre, met Benjamin Britten, started writing for the Architectural Review and was commissioned by John Betjeman to write one of the Shell guides, the latter projects becoming a focus for his constant touring of Britain.

The third chapter, “Buildings without Sight 1939-40”, shows that architecture becomes the focus of his work in paint, photography, drawing and monotype in the closing years of the 1930s. It provides an insightful comparison between the blind facades represented in his work and the pre-war mood, “defenceless, threatened and unable to respond” [20]. Piper devises simplified compositions, using diagonals and frontal views and working on textures in a characteristic manner, while pursuing his exploration of architecture, rediscovering 19th-century civil architecture and contributing regular articles to the Architectural Review. One of his tours takes him to Wales, where the landscape provides him with basic, renewed imagery in his art of reconstruction while walking in the footsteps of great British artists such as Turner. The most interesting aspect of this chapter is how the circumstances of war made Piper a popular artist as his style enabled him to negotiate the insular aesthetic turn: “The kind of art that he made suddenly became useful and was admired” [24]. As a war artist he became part of the wartime cultural establishment, taking part in the Recording Britain scheme, working for Kenneth Clark’s War Artists Advisory Committee and designing the first cover of Horizon.

The next chapter, “The Blitz and the Baedeker Raids 1940-43”, leads us to the high point of his career as a war artist. His paintings of ruined abbeys and of country houses such as the Sitwells’ Renishaw Hall are “one of the moments of reconstruction in British art” [30], matched by his records of blitzed cities and his watercolours of Windsor castle. Piper’s painting of Coventry in particular is singled out as it “became for Britain what Picasso’s Guernica had been for Spain” [33]. Yet an interesting point is made about the ethical role of the war artist. A useful comparison with the work of Graham Sutherland shows that both artists seemed to be indifferent to the plight of civilians and that abstract design encapsulated a form of “social distance” which reflected the class structure of the time. Conversely the success of Piper’s paintings implies that the fate of the buildings indirectly mirrored “the physical pain of inflicted wounds” [34]. These years also saw his first set for a ballet, The Quest, at Saddler’s Wells in 1943, which is seen in the light of “the general spirit of survival by national revival” [38].

The fifth and final chapter, “Neo-Romanticism” contextualises Piper’s work in relation to key figures such as Sutherland, Paul Nash, Frances Hodgkins, and Henry Moore, and among the younger generations, Keith Vaughan, John Minton, Michael Ayrton and Leslie Hurry. It charts the history of the label first used by the critic Raymond Mortimer to refer to artists whose similarities came to the fore in joint exhibitions in 1941 and 1942. Piper rather saw himself as one of the British Romantic artists, the title of his 1942 essay, as shown by his emulation of Samuel Palmer. Nevertheless his paintings of ruined cottages and of the Welsh landscape exemplify a typical Neo-Romantic formal quality, the “transference of the human to landscape” [42], a form of pathetic fallacy which is construed as stemming from a general interest in the “landscape-body as a site of generation” [43]. Among the younger artists, John Craxton, under the direct influence of Piper, and the painter Robin Ironside extolled an insular view of British art while the increasingly critical stance of Geoffrey Grigson revealed a shift in attitudes. However at the end of the war Piper’s work was very much in demand. He worked in a great diversity of mediums, undertaking commissions for stained glass, illustrations, or guidebooks, but it is his stage designs that are rated as his best work in these years. His backcloths for the ballet Job (1948) in particular exemplify his Neo-Romantic admiration for Blake and his recent interest in the landscape of Snowdonia. The concluding pages of this chapter assess his work of the post-war period up to the early 1950s and the Festival of Britain. They underline his consistency and his “resilience in finding new patrons” and gaining access to a wider market and “a dedicated audience” [47, 48].

In an appendix entitled “The Journalism of John Piper”, three of his articles are reproduced, the most significant of which is “Towers in the Fens” and one wishes that other pieces such as “The Architecture of Destruction” (Architectural Review, 1941) and “Pleasing decay” (Architectural Review, 1947) had been reprinted as well. The catalogue comprises 98 high-quality reproductions of his work in colour. The reader will find the best-known of his paintings, but also minor or lesser-known works such as early stage designs or the 1940 control room paintings commissioned by the WAAC. A select bibliography provides useful information for the general reader and researcher alike. John Piper : The Forties makes for a pleasant and stimulating read that tackles the major issues and contradictions of the art of the 1940s through the lens of the individual career of a major artist.


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