John Piper review – One of Britain's greatest artists? Pull the other one!

By Jonathan Jones

Tate Liverpool
From his flaccid, semi-modernist daubs to his visions of Olde England, John Piper was about as refreshing as a cup of weak tea. But the war, and its bombed-out buildings, did give him his finest hour

John Piper's art is a bit like being given a hanky and an Agatha Christie novel when you've got a cold. A drear and dark November is certainly the right time to open a survey of his Lemsip, soft-centred vision – if there is ever actually a good time to view his wan seaside resorts and sad ruins. Tate Liverpool's attempt to reclaim this minor figure as a “great British artist” (that's honestly what the publicity says) is like saying John Betjeman was the greatest poet of the 20th century. Both have their place, but let's not push it.

Piper, who was born in 1903 and soldiered on until 1992, was a contemporary of such European giants as Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Mondrian and Ernst. During the age of modernism in the first half of the 20th century Britain was an artistic backwater. In recent years, art historians have lost sight of that. They keep weaving fantasies in which Matisse comes to see Henry Moore and says: “'enry, I ‘ave no ideas, can you ‘elp?” This exhibition takes that revisionist fashion to such absurd extremes that it may represent some kind of breaking point. Yes, there is a case for championing Moore, Hepworth or Nash. But Piper? Pull the other one, it's got bells on it. Church bells, of course.

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