Exhibition visit: John Piper and John Bratby, Jerwood Gallery, HastingsPosted: April 14, 2016
The beachfront Jerwood Gallery, which sits among black-painted, newly renovated fishing huts in the rapidly gentrifying seaside town of Hastings, is currently showing two very different exhibitions by two twentieth century artists. Both are called John, but the contrast between John Bratby and John Piper couldn’t be greater.
The starting points for John Piper’s paintings, prints and ceramics are often British places, imagery and customs, from country churches and seaside buildings and occupations to the folky Green Man and the strange foliate style of church decoration. His work presents not so much representations of things as an exploration and juxtaposition of forms, colours and sensations through effects such as collage, mosaic and marbling.
Despite his abstraction of experiences and environments and the avant-garde circles in which he moved, the exhibition shows that Piper’s work was firmly part of the establishment of twentieth century British publishing, art and music. On display are his sketchy nautical nursery prints for Contemporary Lithographs, his drawings and paintings for Recording Britain and as a war artist, Shell book designs, and a Benjamin Britten record cover, as well as collaborations with Heal’s, a book on the installation of electricity on churches (produced with John Betjeman) and stained glass commissions for churches in Harlow and Coventry. Ranging from the 1930s to the post-war decades, it’s notable that despite his popularity in private and public commissions little in way of Piper’s style of modernism made it into Pictures for Schools.
By contrast, the paintings of the other artist on show at the Jerwood, John Bratby, fit seamlessly into the type of Britain and the representations of it which predominated at Pictures for Schools; indeed, Bratby, as well as other ‘Kitchen Sink school’ artists, regularly exhibited and sold portraits and still lifes at the exhibitions.
Whereas Piper made ordinary places and images mysterious, Bratby’s paintings appear to magnify the normal, intensifying the banality of everyday life and routines through dark outlines and thick brushmarks. His paintings, in a manner reminiscent of pop-art, incorporate and highlight brand names and throwaway packaging, from cereal packets to washing up bottles, and celebrate icons of popular culture such as Paul McCartney. His subjects suggest familiarity and intimacy, from flower arrangements to family life. Lounging nudes, the bathroom sink, a muddled collection of tools, are rendered unremarkable and unnoteworthy.
Bratby’s paintings make us contemplate vantage points and perspectives, both literal and metaphorical. They invite us to look in, at the now and the past, at the domestic and comforting, and outwards, to imagine a possible future and transformation of our lives. This is Britain viewed tentatively, through net curtains and decaying window frames, from a homely setting of wooden floorboards and kitchen tables. He portrays a country which is still drab, grey and brown, poised somewhere between post-war austerity and the promise of the cultural and social freedoms of a new consumer age. Hastings, too, where Bratby spent the last years of his life living and painting (and where it is still possible to imagine him working, amid the entropy of buildings and industries that still somehow cling on despite decades of decline), is a town on the verge of becoming something very different from the rundown resort it was formerly. The Jerwood, with its £9 entry fee, is a symbol of coastal regeneration, mimicking in its appearance yet irrevocably distanced from the traditional fishing huts and occupations it overlooks.
‘John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink Including the Kitchen Sink’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 17 April.
‘John Piper: An Eye for the Modern’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 8 May.