Review: John Piper exhibition (Tate Liverpool)

John Piper

Surrealism In Egypt: Art et Liberté 1938-1948

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley: We Are Ghosts

John Piper had a long life, spanning almost the whole of the 20th century (he was born in 1903 and died in 1992). He came to be recognised as one of the finest British artists of his time, achieving widespread popularity for his paintings of the country’s buildings and landscapes. He was an official war artist during World War II, creating haunting images of many bomb-damaged churches. Even allowing for his longevity he was remarkably prolific and his work extraordinarily varied, encompassing paintings, drawings, collages, stained glass windows, tapestry designs, stage sets for plays and operas and more.

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Piper’s eclecticism is one of the most striking features of this diverse, richly rewarding exhibition (one of three new winter exhibitions at Tate Liverpool). Another is that while he is best known for his more traditional figurative works, we see how much he was influenced in the prewar years by European abstract artists, including Picasso and Georges Braque. One of the exhibition’s major works, Beach with Starfish (above), illustrates this mix of approaches well. It’s a cubist-influenced collage from the early Thirties but one that depicts a very English seaside scene (the Seven Sisters cliffs near Eastbourne). Pages from the New Statesman have been cut to form the shapes of the cliffs; a subliminal sense of the threat of invasion from across the Channel is suggested by references in the written texts to the economic situation in mainland Europe (one of the headlines is ‘Nazi Economics’). Gouache is used for the sea, beach and sky, and there are images taken from textbooks of fishes and seaweed.

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There are many more depictions of the English coastline in the exhibition, including the playful Harbour Scene, Newhaven (above), which again makes use of collage and where there’s a childlike energy and jauntiness about the picture. A more undiluted abstract technique is evident in paintings such as Black Ground (Screen for the Sea) (below), where Picasso’s influence is very clear. With the onset of war Piper turned away from abstract art. Perhaps he felt this was no time for detachment from the physical reality of the buildings and landscapes he loved and which were now under more immediate threat. His magnificent paintings of bombed-out churches are regarded by many as his best work, and the exhibition includes atmospheric depictions of St Mary le Port, Bristol and Christ Church in London’s Newgate Street.

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The exhibition also reflects Piper’s interest in early native art forms, including medieval stained glass windows and Anglo-Saxon stone carving. He designed stained glass windows for Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral and for the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral; the exhibition includes a panel he designed in the early 1960s. He was also heavily involved in a project to document early English carved fonts, crosses and other surviving stone fragments. This took him to many different parts of the country and we can see some of the photographs he took during his travels. There is also an actual piece of 8th or 9th century sculpted stone, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus – an example of the kinds of artwork which inspired him as much as the modernist works of the 1930s. Notebooks, sketchbooks, letters and other memorabilia help to provide an absorbing overview of his career.

A ticket for the John Piper exhibition also allows entrance to Surrealism in Egypt, a large collection of works which sheds dazzling, revelatory light on an undeservedly obscure part of art history. It’s the first comprehensive exhibition of works from the Art and Liberty Group, a collective of politically engaged artists and writers who lived and worked in Cairo in the 1930s and 1940s. A fascinating selection of paintings, photographs and written documents shows how the European surrealist movement reached out to Egypt, where artists such as the French writer André Breton and the American photographer Lee Miller – who married an Egyptian and lived in Cairo for a long period – had a significant influence on Cairo’s cultural scene. Newsreel footage playing in the exhibition rooms confirms that Cairo in the 1930s was a bustling, cosmopolitan city, with a population which included refugees from many different countries and visiting British soldiers (Egypt was then still ruled by Britain). A sense of social injustice – the Art and Liberty Group were strongly anti-Fascist – links many of the exhibits. One of the most compelling is Mayo’s large oil painting Coups de Bâtons (below), which depicts the brutal suppression of a political demonstration.

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Completing the line-up of Tate Liverpool’s set of new exhibitions is We Are Ghosts (free admission), which comprises two video works by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley. The artists are based in New York and this is their first solo museum exhibition in the UK. They specialize in films that combine painting, performance and poetry in surreal and highly imaginative ways, encouraging us to consider different perspectives on historical events and to question how we understand and interpret the past. In The Body of The Sturgeon is set on a US submarine during the Second World War. The crew hear the news of the bombing of Hiroshima, and then have to face the inevitability of their own deaths at sea. Their dialogue is entirely made up of lines and half-lines from Longfellow’s iconic American 19th century epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, a thought-provoking exercise in cultural and historical fusion. Equally intriguing is This Is Offal, inspired by Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem The Bridge of Sighs, about a woman who kills herself by jumping from a bridge. The woman’s motives are unclear, making her emblematic of the countless Victorian women whose thoughts and feelings remain unknown to us. In the Kelleys’ film the character’s body parts argue with each other about why she died – an idea that’s bizarrely engaging and effective.

The three exhibitions are at Tate Liverpool until 18 March 2018. A ticket giving joint admission to the John Piper and Surrealism In Egypt exhibitions is £10 (£8 concessions). Admission to We Are Ghosts is free.

Image credits

John Piper: Beach with Starfish c.1933-4 ©The Piper Estate

John Piper: Harbour Scene, Newhaven 1936-1937 ©The Piper Estate/DACS 2017. Image courtesy Private collection

John Piper: Black Ground (Screen for the Sea) 1938 ©The Piper Estate/DACS 2017. Photo: Antonia Reeve

Mayo: Coups de Bâtons 1937 Image courtesy Private collection, Milan