Exhibition of the week John Piper
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool (0151-702 7400, www.tate.org.uk). Until 18 March
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?