JOHN PIPER ZINE Image: Melanie Cheung, Student Ambassador
Produced by Warwick Arts Centreâ€™s Student Ambassadors: Loretta Cooper Clelia Furlan Jessica Olley Tom West Melanie Cheung 1
CONTENTS A Note - Jim Alibertis
A Visit to Coventry Cathedral: A Student Blog - Tom West
Navigating the new Cathedral of Coventry: A Student Guide - Loretta Cooper
Coventry Cathedral: A Movement In Art History - Jessica Olley
The Architecture of War in the Paintings of John Piper and Tammam Azzam 2 -Tom West
In Conversation with Fiona Venables - Clelia Furlan
Note The Student Ambassador Scheme is an essential part of Warwick Arts Centre’s Student Engagement campaign. It is designed for University of Warwick students, from any academic department and year of study, who have an interest in the creative industries, arts marketing or events promotion. Inspired by the Mead Gallery’s current John Piper exhibition, our Student Ambassadors visited Coventry Cathedral to see Piper’s baptistery window and to explore the wider building and the surrounding area. This zine brings together Ambassadors responses to the visit. We hope you enjoy it!
Jim Alibertis Student Ambassador Coordinator
A Visit to Coventry Cathedral: A student Blog To look upon the remains of Coventryâ€™s old cathedral today, nearly eighty years after its ruin in the blitz, is to bear witness to a strange juncture between light and space. The perimeter of the structure remains and its architecture bears resemblance to the common medieval chapels which permeate the British landscape. Yet to step inside its walls is a far cry from the dark and cloistered experience typical of such buildings. The walls stand like a forest of bare tree trunks robbed of its canopy, exposed. In the absence of a roof, light streams in from the sky to illuminate the space where pews once stood. The sight is spectacular, yet uncanny. To see a building which should be familiar, ruptured at its crown, is somewhat unnerving. To look up, to see the sky, is to force us to confront history; to observe that same firmament from which the bombs of desecration once fell.
The reconstructed cathedral is somewhat inconspicuous, being nestled at a lower level to the original site. The interior is a modernist masterpiece. The cool grey concrete of the walls reflect attention so that the whole building induces a kind of meditative quietude. The monotonous grey is punctuated by vertical bars of light from stainedglass slits; kaleidoscopic patterns stream in at geometric angles to form luminous patterns which criss-cross the interior. The main event of the cathedral towers above, to the right of the nave, where John Piperâ€™s magnificent baptistery window stands. The prismed sunlight refracts across the entire space in a colourful dance which, when combined with the solemnity of the concrete structure, creates a profound balance between absence and opulence; remembrance and hope. Tom West Student Ambassador
Loretta Cooper Student Ambassador
8 Designed by Loretta Cooper, Student Ambassador Designed by Loretta Cooper, Student Ambassador
We would like to thank Clelia Furlan, Jessica Olley and Tom West for their work on the content of this fanzine, Melanie Cheung for her photographs and research, and Loretta Cooper for both her work on the content and on editing the fanzine. Additionally, we would like to thank Lenette Lua for creating the audio tour guide for the Mead Galleryâ€™s current John Piper exhibition. Jim Alibertis Student Ambassadors Coordinator
Designed by Loretta Cooper, Student Ambassador
In the following pages, you will be able to see some of their excellent contributions to the scheme, learn more about John Piper and discover Coventry Cathedral.
The Architecture of War in the Paintings of John Piper and Tammam Azzam John Piper’s work, commissioned during his time as an Official War Artist, captures the sense of melancholic trauma inherent to the wartime experience. Following the September Blitz of 1940, Piper was appointed to record the destruction wrought on bombed churches across Britain. His famous depiction of Coventry Cathedral’s damaged exterior bleakly shows the desecrated carcass of the sacred site, and Piper conveys the feeling of a nation stripped of its most sacred institutions. Such a concept is echoed in the contemporary work of Syrian artist, Tammam Azzam, whose “Storeys” depict a series of paintings that similarly mourn the displacement of the familiar involved in war. For Azzam, the displacement is not religious but domestic. Neighbourhoods of imposing tower blocks are depicted in a state of disintegrating decay. The linearity of the brutalist architecture becomes blurred within a haze of monotonous grey. The paintings of both Piper and Azzam can be noted for the significance of absence. The optics of their work convey a profound deficiency of life; a church gutted of its congregation, apartments abandoned by their residents. The displacement of functionality for such buildings is thus reflective of the general displacement of people in war. 10
For both artists, their paintings hold a certain tension; the picture is not totally bleak, there is a certain hope which persists through the pessimism. In Azzam’s work, there is a kind of organicism which exists in his paintings as buildings begin to take forms vaguely reminiscent of biological tissues rather than concrete. This restores life to the scene and conveys the potential for growth from the ruin. In Piper’s work, coloured light strikes the buildings in a manner which harks back to his earlier abstract work, and which gives the scene a vibrancy that gestures towards a less grey future. Even in Azzam’s generally monotone paintings, there are subtle hints of pastel yellow in illuminated windows and powder blue skies which in a similar way, bring an effervescence to the misery that, as in Piper’s work, restores a sense of optimism to a landscape dominated by the sorrow of war. Tom West Student Ambassador
In Conversation with Fiona Venables, Deputy Curator of the Mead Gallery’s John Piper Exhibition John Piper was one of the most significant British artists of the 20th century; his work has strong ties to the city of Coventry, which he visited the day after the 1940 Blitz and for whose cathedral he designed a stunning baptistery window. From 1st May to 21st June 2018, the Mead Gallery at the Warwick Arts Centre will present an exhibition of some of his most important works: paintings, collages, textiles... Clelia Furlan, a Student Ambassador for the Warwick Arts Centre, spoke to Deputy Curator Fiona Venables about Piper, the exhibition, and future projects at the Mead Gallery.
CLELIA FURLAN: I’d like to begin by asking how the exhibition was conceived and how it relates to the present – how does it speak to current concerns? FIONA VENABLES: We really wanted to explore the relationship between the history of Coventry and the visual arts, particularly in the last century; Piper’s work allows us to tell a story about what happened in 1940 with the Coventry Blitz but also about what happened afterwards, when the city became a place of restoration and reconciliation. These themes are especially 12
important in light of Coventry becoming City of Culture in 2021 – they allow us to look forward as well as backward. CF: Which leads to our second question – what do you think becoming City of Culture will mean for the city and for the Arts Centre? FV: The Mead Gallery, along with the Arts Centre cinema, is about to close for two years for the renovation works that will be completed in 2020; the John Piper exhibition is the last in our current space. We will keep exhibiting works across campus and are working on an exhibition titled “Journeys with The Waste Land”, inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem, in collaboration with the Herbert Museum in Coventry where it will be on show. The reopening of the gallery in a new ground floor space at the Arts Centre will be quickly followed by the beginning of the City of Culture year in 2021, during which we will collaborate with various partners across the city to deliver a crossartform programme that will hopefully benefit the city economically but also in terms of access to and engagement with the arts. CF: Could you tell me a bit more about how the exhibition programme at the Mead Gallery is curated? What kind of themes are you interested in and what’s the relationship between the gallery and the university’s art collection?
FV: The University of Warwick Art Collection actually predates the existence of the Mead Gallery, going all the way back to the founding of the university in the 60s. It was never conceived for a gallery but as an integral part of the environment and the buildings of the university, of the places in which people lived and worked. It is still very much curated in this spirit, and when the Mead Gallery opened, it was decided that it would work in parallel to the collection, rather than housing it per se. On the other hand, we try to make links between the collection and the exhibition programme around themes such as abstraction, colour, painting… We recently dedicated an exhibition to paintings by Clare Woods – one of them had previously been acquired for the university collection. Another earlier exhibition was focused on colour and space, taking a more environmental approach; so we like to interpret a few key themes in different ways. CF: These themes are also present in the John Piper exhibition. FV: Absolutely. There are all sorts of serendipitous relationships between Piper, the city, the university, and the wider historical and cultural context. In terms of the art world, there are links between the founding part of the University of Warwick Art Collection – which consists of several abstract paintings – and Piper’s work, who was experimenting with abstraction and whose choice to design a non-figurative window for the newly reconstructed cathedral was pretty radical for the time. The cathedral itself was consecrated in 1962, and 14
the university was founded only three years after that – it was a really important period for the city. CF: But Piper was also present when the old cathedral was destroyed in the Second World War. Could you tell us a bit more about that period and about his earlier involvement with the city? FV: In 1939, Piper became part of the Recording Britain scheme, initiated by Sir Kenneth Clark; its purpose was to document places and lifestyles that were perceived to be at risk. This was part of an international phenomenon, with similar initiatives being taken in the U.S. and Russia, for example – there was of course a sense of war looming, but more generally, people felt that industrialization and modernization were leading to rapid and irreversible changes in society and the environment. When the Second World War broke out in Britain, Piper was persuaded by Kenneth Clark to work as an Official War Artist for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. His first assignment involved producing paintings of a very secretive air raid precaution control room in Bristol; he really disliked the assignment and, I suspect, later found ways to fit the Committee’s directives to his interests. He was sent to Coventry the day after the 1940 Blitz – an air raid which killed almost 600 people and badly damaged two thirds of the city’s buildings, including St Michael’s cathedral. Piper produced, among others, sketches and paintings of the ravaged cathedral, true to his interest in historical buildings threatened by the war. He was sometimes criticised for not depicting any human figures: his 15
drawings and paintings have a stark, theatrical quality – their resemblance to stage sets was also at times criticised. In hindsight, however, these features give his works a real power, a sense that the horrors of the war could happen again, like a theatrical production, and they also invite the viewer to imagine the people affected by this tragedy, which can be more effective than merely representing them. CF: Piper’s love of British landscape and architecture is evident – it permeates all of his works. Could you elaborate on this aspect of his art, on his sense of place? FV: Piper was, from a very young age, extremely fond of walking and recording his surroundings; he had a longstanding interest in landscape and architecture. He was also fascinated by medieval art, including architecture, stone carvings, and so forth . . . activities that are generally considered ‘crafts’ and not fine arts. This was connected to his exploration of British identity and character; his approach, however, was never nostalgic. He always kept an eye on what was happening in Europe, particularly to the abstract work that was being produced by artists such as Picasso, Braque, and Léger. He combined all of these different languages – the old and the new – to elaborate a perspective that always looked forward, retaining a sense of place without becoming insular. I think these questions are still important today, especially with Brexit and the rhetoric that surrounds it: how do we figure out the balance between British identity and the wider international context, how do we produce a 16
cultural language that speaks to the present and doesn’t just repeat the past? CF: Piper also liked to work with different media – what do you think was the drive behind the evolution of his work and the different shapes it took? FV: Piper always enjoyed working collaboratively; his most important collaborator was probably his partner – and later wife – Myfanwy Evans with whom he founded the influential art journal Axis, and in general, he was very good at forging professional and personal relationships with other artists and creatives. This allowed him to experiment with a number of different media besides painting: glasswork, obviously, but also book design, textile design… In the course of this exhibition, I have heard criticism of the fact that Piper did not physically make the Coventry cathedral window: he designed it, but it was constructed by Patrick Reyntiens. Conceptual artists today are sometimes criticised for not making their artworks and relying on other people’s expertise, but what they don’t realise is that this is not a new phenomenon: it’s a practice that has existed for a long time and really doesn’t undermine the value of the work itself or of the artists involved. CF: For example, Italian Renaissance painters all had their workshops with assistants who helped them with their work. 17
FV: Exactly, and this allows artists to learn new techniques, experiment with new solutions and develop their style. The Coventry cathedral window was very much a collaborative effort that proved incredibly productive for both Piper and Reyntiens. CF: We’ve reached the end of the interview – thank you for such an interesting discussion. I have one final question: why should students come see the John Piper exhibition? What do you think we can learn from it? FV: The exhibition is strongly linked to a specific artistic and historical context; it tells a story about Britain in general and about Coventry in particular – as we have seen, Piper was present during two pivotal moments in the history of the city: its destruction and its reconstruction. It really shows how art is not just decoration but can tell a story about a place and a time, about the aspirations of a city . . . it can give a sense of who you are and where you are, and I think this aspect is conveyed really effectively in Piper’s works. Clelia Furlan Student Ambassador
New Exhibition Audio Tour Planning on visiting the John Piper exhibition at the Mead Gallery (Tue 1 May â€“ Thu 21 Jun 2018)? Experience our FREE audio tour using your own mobile device. Listen to 15 minutes of new content written by Fiona Venables, Mead Gallery Curator. 1. visit www.transmuseum.co.uk/guide on your mobile device 2. Look for works of art in the exhibition displaying a headphone icon on the description label 3. Find the corresponding title on the online guide and click the play icon
Produced and Supported by Transparent and Student Ambassadors at Warwick Arts Centre
Special thanks to: Fiona Venables, Deputy Curator, Mead Gallery Coventry Cathedral
Image: Melanie Cheung, Student Ambassador. Coventry Cathedral
You can find out more about Warwick Arts Centre’s Student Amvassador Scheme vy visiting www.warwickartscentre.co .uk/student-ambassadors/
Produced by Warwick Arts Centre's Student Ambassadors