Ex­hi­bi­tion of the week John Piper

Tate Liver­pool, Al­bert Dock, Liver­pool (0151-702 7400, www.tate.org.uk). Un­til 18 March

The Week - - Arts | Art -

John Piper (1903-1992) was “the most re­as­sur­ingly English of 20th cen­tury artists”, said Mark Hud­son in The Daily Tele­graph. He was a “gen­tle­man modernist”, a “pas­sion­ate an­ti­quar­ian” whose ro­man­tic de­pic­tions of pro­vin­cial towns and the coun­try­side pre­sented Eng­land as a coun­try still rooted in an­cient tra­di­tions. As a re­sult, Piper is rarely spo­ken of in the same breath as his modernist peers, and has ac­quired some­thing of a “fo­gey­ish” rep­u­ta­tion – a stand­ing that this “en­joy­able” new show at Tate Liver­pool sets out to cor­rect. The ex­hi­bi­tion show­cases an “al­to­gether edgier” side to Piper’s ca­reer, pre­sent­ing him as an ex­per­i­men­tal artist in tune with the in­ter­na­tional avant-garde of the day; his paint­ings, draw­ings and pho­to­graphs are jux­ta­posed with work by lu­mi­nar­ies in­clud­ing Pi­casso and Alexan­der Calder. Al­though not com­pletely con­vinc­ing, this is a “thought-pro­vok­ing in­tro­duc­tion” to a “bril­liantly tal­ented” artist.

There is much to like about Piper, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. He had a “sin­cere” love for Bri­tish ar­chi­tec­ture, which be­came par­tic­u­larly ap­par­ent when he was com­mis­sioned to paint the ru­ins of Blitz-dam­aged ci­ties in the 1940s. He painted medieval churches struck by bombs as they “smoul­dered”: his vi­sion of Christ Church, New­gate Street, in London is all “brood­ing bro­ken pil­lars”, while Saint Mary le Port, Bris­tol, is a “gut­ted shell” still glow­ing with “red em­bers”. Yet while he was “per­haps Bri­tain’s best war artist of the 1940s”, the no­tion that he was on a level with the greats of Euro­pean mod­ernism is sim­ply ab­surd. True, he ex­per­i­mented with avant-garde tech­niques as a young man, but his ef­forts were “tepid” at best. In one room, a hand­ful of his “flac­cid” early col­lages hang next to an ear­lier and al­to­gether more rad­i­cal Pi­casso com­po­si­tion. The ef­fect is “like a tea room or­ches­tra in 1930s

Har­bour Scene, Ne­whaven (1936-1937): avant-garde mod­ernism?

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