The sea, which John Piper called ‘a powerful emotional force in English art’,1 and associated maritime motifs were a particular focus for him during the 1930s. Collage, still life with black head is one of a large number of painting and collage combinations that he made in 1933. Essentially experimental, these works were variations on the theme of a view through a seaside cottage window, and were the result of several painting trips that Piper made to the English south coast during that year.
Collage, still life with black head shows Piper exploring the alternatives to conventional picture-making represented by the still-life collages of Braque and Picasso. Piper had met Braque in about 1927, and seen Picasso’s collage works in Paris. The window sill still life was a compositional device that allowed a flattening of the picture space, and here the sill is so steeply tilted as to afford only a glimpse of the sea and passing steamer. The picture’s surface is further emphasised by variously coloured, patterned or textured still-life objects, both painted and collaged. A framing cartouche of incised, wavy lines (a technique used by Braque) confirms Piper’s intention for the work to function as a decorative object rather than a window on the world. Common to this group of works is Piper’s witty use of paper doilies to represent the lace curtains that frame the window.
Here, a real doily has been glued on to introduce an element of literal reality, and one has also been used as a stencil for the painted lace curtains. Piper’s immediate influence for this work was Ben Nicholson, who was also making still-life collages in 1933, and using motifs such as the paper doily and classical bust. At this time both artists employed a self-consciously naïve style of painting that simplified form, avoided modelling and left brushstrokes exposed. This lyrical style was the trademark of some members of the progressive English exhibiting group, the Seven and Five Society, which Piper was invited to join in this year.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. John Piper, ‘Younger English painters — II’, The Listener, vol. 29, 29 March 1933, p. 492.