John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism

In his book ‘The Gilded Gutter Life’, Dan Farson describes a correspondence between Victor Pasmore and Francis Bacon. Pasmore, a mid-career convert to abstraction, protests against Bacon’s steadfast dismissal of abstract imagery. Bacon responds with a snarky one line put-down. ‘For me abstract art can be nothing but decoration because there is nothing to anchor it…’ Nothing but decoration. Bacon was prejudiced against the notion that art could or should be a background to life. I can relate. For many years I had a similar snobbery myself. At school I did an ink drawing based on a Vorticist woodcut I’d found in an old book. Proudly I showed it to the teacher. ‘Interesting’, she said. ‘Would you mind if I kept hold of this for a while, I might have a use for it?’ Intrigued, I waited. The following week, I was horrified when I entered her classroom. She’d used the image as a repeat border stencil for her noticeboard, and thanked me for my ‘pretty’ decoration. I was seething. Repetition seemed to trivialize meaning, pulling it away from the reverently framed single image, and placing it in the background, on the wallpaper that’s fine to ignore and that doesn’t ever ask for your understanding.

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I’m transported back to that youthful moment of rather silly self-righteous anger as I explore Pallant House Gallery’s exhibition of John Piper. Piper’s 1935 ‘Abstract Painting’ is a small and beautiful piece in oils, framed on the wall. Beside it, we have ‘Abstract’, a 1955 fabric design, displayed here as a curtain on a rail. It is the 1935 forebear, rendered as a repeat pattern.

This exhibition, ‘The Fabric of Modernism’ firmly establishes Piper’s distance from the haughty concerns of Francis Bacon. Here’s a man on the other side of this debate, happy to see his work as a decoration and accompaniment to daily life. His textile designs across various media reveal an infectious joy in pushing the boundaries of traditional fine art. I’m won over by it, I admit, never having previously pegged myself as much of a Piper fan.

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The show is an in-depth study of Piper’s textile work, created in an age of mass production when the notion of art on fabric suddenly became a possibility. It’s a show which therefore, in part at least, urges us to look beyond the cliché of the solitary suffering artist holed up in a garret creating one-offs. This is a show about collaborations which, often executed on an industrial scale, pushed the boundaries of what an artist could achieve alone. The ‘Stones of Bath’ fabric, which hangs at the entrance to this exhibition, was screenprinted in nineteen colours by Sandersons – the only company in Britain with the technology to achieve print of such complexity at this time. Perhaps this explains the frenetic, jazzy feel of this print. ‘Look what we can do now!’ it seems to declare. There’s a postwar idealism at play here, as rationing recedes and luxury appears on the menu again. You can have modern art in your hallway.

Stones of Bath was a best-selling fabric in the early 60s, reprinted several times in different colourways. Unlike the earlier and more modular ‘Abstract’ fabric, this pattern feels fluid – the joins between its repeating elements impossible to see, the complex printing process allowing for a believable watercolour feel. Piper was becoming an expert in this process, and no doubt relishing the new opportunities the technology brought.

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As I walk through the show, it’s quite a revelation to view the fabrics right next to the paintings which inspired them. A 1949 watercolour depicts an atmospheric Welsh mountain landscape. Seen as a framed original, it evokes an atavistic connection with the countryside of Britain- beautiful but fixed in location and context. Next to it, the 1960 ‘Glyders’ fabric takes this image and makes it fully abstract. The colours are warmer and it retains a sense of landscape, yet the repetition makes it pregnant with other possibilities.

It takes me back to early childhood, lying sick in bed and gazing towards the curtained daylight, playing that perennial game of watching faces and animals emerge and recede from within the abstract patterns of the drapery. In this sense I can see how the Glyders fabric has more imaginative potential than its neatly framed, single-image forebear. How will it look against a window in early morning sunrise? How different might it then look with an angry sunset blazing behind and through it? (The exhibition catalogue informs us that Piper used this fabric in his own home, so we can surmise that it was a personal favourite.)

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Piper also worked extensively in the medium of tapestry, particularly for public commissions. The exhibition deals in some detail with a huge piece he created for the high altar in Chichester cathedral. I know this piece well, and although it’s never done much for me, the small preparatory sketches here are absolutely fascinating as an exploration of artistic process. Piper’s technique for experimentally juxtaposing forms and colours is essentially a version of late Matisse- textures and flat colours applied in gouache to paper, then cut up, moved round and collaged in place. The small, intimate scale of these maquettes make a stark contrast with the eventual monumental dimensions of the cathedral tapestry.

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Again we are returned, more strongly now perhaps, to the importance of collaboration in this endeavour. Skilled weavers translated Piper’s intimate gouache collages and studies into fabric, transforming their size and context. Gazing round me, it’s clear this was a highly interpretative undertaking and herein lies the fascination. A large scale 1965 gouache cartoon for the Chichester piece sits next to the trial tapestry panel upon which it’s based. It’s a good way to compare the two media. The paper of the gouache study has yellowed, and already feels a bit antique. The woven version is fresh as the day it was made, its colours solid, and its tactile softness pleasing to the eye.

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The skill of the weavers is for me most evident in a late series of Foliate Heads, made in the 1980s for The Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford. The immediacy and zing of their colours and lines sit at odds with their time consuming genesis, in a weird but strangely pleasing contradiction – like a kind of optical trick. From close up, they are exceptionally lush and luxurious woven images. But from a distance they are all about describing painting in its most spontaneous form – transparent washes of colour, limpid brush strokes or fuzzy wet-on-wet effects. The skill required to translate this painterly immediacy into a woven medium is quite stunning. Never has tapestry looked so fresh.

I come away from the show enthused by John Piper’s pleasure in experimentation, both inside and outside his studio. It’s a lesson in having fun. There’s a feeling of freedom and a sense of playfulness to so much of it, right through his career. He clearly wasn’t dogmatic about the aesthetic superiority of abstract over figurative, or vice versa. These were interchangeable strings to his bow. His figurative pieces were often abstracted in textiles, and he dipped into both worlds as each artwork at hand required. He also took on many public commissions and seemed to enjoy putting his images outside the traditional gallery space. Such monumental or factory-made pieces were things he could not have achieved alone, and this is a measure of the man. It clearly took a particular kind of artist to have the trust and vision to hand over their work to collaborators, embracing their skills and all the extra dimensions they could add.

Much as I love him, I can’t imagine Bacon ever doing the same.

‘John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism’ is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until June 12th 2016. Admission £9.

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