Constructed and painted in 1935, Forms on a White Ground combines Piper’s earlier explorations into collaged landscapes with his more recent abstract three-dimensional constructions. The straight lines, angles, rectangles, trapeziums and semi-circles create a dynamic surface that feels both mathematically constructed and playfully dynamic. The reds and yellows are supported by the grey foundation, itself suspended in white. This careful choice of colour creates the illusion of depth that is in turn mirrored in the subtle collaging that Piper applies to the surface.
The abstract works that John Piper created in the 1930s were not only some of the most innovative works of his career, but of any artist working in Britain at that time. Moving away from the naïve landscape collages of the late 1920s, he experimented with abstract constructions before refining them to the pure paintings of the mid 1930s, and, in doing so, he became a central figure within the Modernist movement in London at that time.
Joining Ben Nicholson in the 7 & 5 Society in 1934 Piper visited Paris for the first time, meeting the founder of Art Concrete, Jean Hélion who introduced him to many of the artists who had fled to Paris following the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933 and the state-backed implementation of socialist realism in Russia.
This broadening of Piper’s artistic horizons coincided with his burgeoning friendship with the young Oxford graduate, Myfanwy Evans, whom he had first met during a weekend in Suffolk, staying with their mutual friend, Ivon Hitchens. Evans’s visit over the summer of 1934 to Paris, with an introduction to Jean Hélion from Piper, led to meetings with artists including Giacometti, Arp, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Brancusi.
Filled with a desire to champion all that she had encountered in Paris and advised by Hélion himself to “go back to England and start a magazine of abstract art” (F. Spalding, John Piper Myfanwy Piper Lives in Art, Oxford, 2009, p. 62), Evans returned and with the support of key figures such as Herbert Read and Ben Nicholson, she launched Axis with the first publication being printed in January 1935. Piper co-produced the publication and designed the front cover for the magazine which became the first journal dedicated purely to abstract art in England.
By this time Piper had split from his wife Eileen, and, as his relationship with Myfanwy blossomed, they looked for their own permanent home; stumbling across a derelict farmhouse at Fawley Bottom at the foot of the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire. Although living outside London, Piper’s involvement with the 7 & 5 Society and the unique voice that Axis gave to abstract art in England in the mid-1930s meant that he found himself at the heart of the contemporary art scene in London. With the rise of Fascism sweeping through Europe a wave of émigré artists and architects came to London. For a moment in time Hampstead, in North London, became the European epicentre for international modernism. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and Piet Mondrian all lived and worked within a couple of streets and were close friends with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Arthur Jackson.
Although Piper was to find later commercial success with his bucolic oils and watercolours, the present work shows Piper at his most innovative. Absorbing all that he experienced in Paris and London he distilled this into a form of pure abstraction that imitates no one and was as original as any artist working in England at that time.
Far from emptying a work of artist’s personality; this process of abstraction, by removing the mask of sentimental actuality, leaves that personality free to shine out clearly”