The abstract works that John Piper produced in the 1930s mark one of the most productive and celebrated periods of his career. Moving away from descriptive narrative Piper turned his attention to creating a series of abstract paintings, developing a language of form, line and colour, which was born from his instinctive search for everyday symbols of geometry. Piper explored the relationship between geometrical shapes and primary colours, often overlapping one another to create a dynamic, lyrical effect. One of the most important works of this period is Abstract Painting, 1935, a work that displays the very best of Piper’s experimentation with abstraction.
Piper’s move away from figurative art coincided with his move to Fawley Bottom farm house near Henley-on-Thames in 1935, which he shared with his partner Myfanwy, the founder of the influential avant-garde art magazine AXIS. Converting the once-sitting room into his studio Piper put to practice his notions of modernist art and worked on a series of abstract paintings. He married his earlier technique of collage with the act of painting, often adhering his canvases onto plywood board and cutting into them with a razor blade to remove slices of the drawing or outer-layer. As seen in the present work this allowed for a contrast of textures and relief, exposing the board beneath, which Piper would sometimes paint with the household brand Ripolin, to create a shiny finish.
One of Piper’s most celebrated paintings of this time is Abstract Painting, 1935. Here Piper interchanges rounded organic forms with straight geometric shapes and crisp lines, creating a bold composition of juxtaposed forms. Using the repeated motif of suspended semi-circles, Piper creates echoes of form, the strict verticals dominating the design creating a marching rhythm across the composition. Piper manipulates a shallow overlap between his forms, carefully constructed so that one is neither obviously in front of nor behind another, to generate a rhythmical, almost undulating effect that sweeps across the painting. This practice both enriches the relationships between the parts, while simultaneously re-affirming the surface of the picture, in keeping with his modernist doxology. Line was important to Piper and he used it to create balance and harmony, most notably seen in his use of the semi-circular protuberances, which counter the architectural severity of his design. Line is often reduced to a series of broken marks, which stitches its way through the centre of the picture to aerate the background, bringing a lightness and fragility to alleviate the heaviness of the surrounding forms.
In the present work space is indicated through the placement of light and dark textured panels of colour, which creates the pictorial illusion of space. During this period Piper would delight in the interplay of colour, testing the limitations of placing bold hues against one another, in the bid to examine how one might at once create a dynamic yet unified composition. Here he plays with a series of complimentary orange and blue hues, carefully balancing them across the composition to create a sense of enlivenment. Piper’s deliberately limited palette, set against a white background, serves only to heighten this juxtaposition, whilst granting a purity and subtlety to Piper’s otherwise bold and provocative aesthetic. Piper’s taste for colour oppositions stemmed from his interest in stained glass, an interest that was ignited by Herbert Read’s article English Stained Glass from 1926, which called for the abolition of its antiquarian image. Travelling to St Leonard’s church in the remote hamlet of Grateley, Hampshire, in 1929 to copy the 13th century medallion depicting The Stoning of Stephen, Piper was struck by the brightness of colour, which separated by black divisions of lead, absented any suggestion of recession through the compartmentalisation of tone. Piper proclaimed the lasting effect it had on him, stating, ‘On the whole I learnt more about using colour doing this copy than I have ever learned before and since’ (D.F. Jenkins, John Piper in the 1930s Abstract on the Beach, London, 2001, p. 35).
The technical process of studying the arrangement in collage, then copying, altering and enlarging in gouache and oil, was established around this period and persisted for many of Piper's more important works, such as Abstract Painting, 1935. When asked by R. Myerscough-Walker, in an interview in The Artist, May 1944, whether or not his abstracts represented any particular subjects, Piper replied, 'They were related to the painting I had done immediately before. Since I had been painting a good deal at the seaside - at Dungeness and in Dorset - the abstract paintings were influenced by forms and colours on the beach and cliff, but only vaguely'. It is possible that some of his shapes and colours were distilled from nautical objects - from buoys, staysails, the masts and hulls of boats. Almost certainly, his abstracts, in their organisation and use of interval, rhythm, harmony and proportion, owe much to his love of music, a passion shared by Myfanwy.
When examining Piper’s work of the 1930s it is clear that he was influenced by the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque, as well as the abstract style of Jean Hélion, with whom he became close friends. Frances Spalding states that Piper’s connection with Cubism in the 1930s was undeniable, she reiterates, ‘An obvious debt to Cubism can be observed in the clustering of planes, the use of overlap and the suggestion in places of transparency’ (ibid, p. 41). It is also known that Piper would trawl Zwemmer’s bookshop in search of examples of their work. One of his most prized purchases was the Cahiers d’art, 1931, which featured an article by Tristan Tzara on the Cubists papiers collés, works he would later see first-hand at the Galerie Pierre in 1935, on a trip to Paris with Myfanwy. In July 1934, Piper saw Braque's exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London, and in March the following year he would visit Paris and see Picasso's papiers collés from 1912-1914 at Galerie Pierre. Building on their examples, Piper's first experiments with abstraction took the form of reliefs made out of everyday materials. The experience of collage, of placing pieces of paper flat on the picture plane and making them active ingredients within the pictorial architecture, proved to have been an important stimulus in his move towards abstraction. Piper’s enthusiasm for Tzara’s experimental ideas provided rewarding, granting him an invitation from Ben Nicholson to join the 7 & 5 Society, a group aimed at bringing modernist techniques to Britain, later promoting him as secretary of the organisation.
What is most striking about Piper’s abstract works of art, seen especially in Abstract Painting, 1935, is that Piper does not lose his sense of identity. Motivated, like other abstract artists at this time, by ideals of rigor and purity, Piper has carefully evolved a pictorial vocabulary that is both impersonal in its choice of lines, shapes and colours, but which can immediately be identified as his. Herbert Read supported the notion that to be abstract did not mean that art was devoid of character of personality. In 1933 under the title Art Now he expressed his beliefs, ‘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 … stripping his object of all adventitious aids to expressiveness, relying solely on the formal structures of his straight lines and curves, surfaces and solid forms, is naked before the world, powerless to clothe himself in anything but his own gestures and expressions. ‘(H. Read, Art Now, London, 1933, p. 103)
A drawing for Abstract Painting, 1935 was illustrated in Axis, No. 4, in November 1935. Comparable works from 1935 are in the collections of Tate, London; National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Cardiff and Arts Council Collection, Hayward Gallery, London. Another work from 1935, Painting, sold in these Rooms, 20 November 2013, lot 11, for £482,500.