Andrew Lambirth

Favourite themes

Andrew Lambirth on a long-awaited exhibition of the work of Graham Sutherland

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As a landscape painter, Graham Sutherland (1903–80) enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame through the 1930s and 40s, culminating in the Venice Biennale in 1952, a prestigious Tate retrospective in 1953 and the Order of Merit, Britain’s highest award, in 1960. His later years saw success as a portrait-painter to the rich and famous, and the scandalously destroyed portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. Yet there hasn’t been a decent Sutherland exhibition in Britain for more than 20 years, since, in fact, the rather-too-inclusive Tate retrospective of 1982. In the meantime his stock, once dangerously inflated by certain over-eager supporters, has sunk dramatically. This happens to many artists, who go through a quiet period before finding their proper level once the process of critical reassessment has taken hold. Interestingly, it seems not to have occurred to the fortunes of either Picasso or Sutherland’s contemporary Francis Bacon. The period in the wilderness for Sutherland has been surprisingly lengthy.

Many people who have been quietly wondering what happened to him will welcome Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits (1924–50), until 25 September. He was a remarkable painter, a Romantic who managed to imbue his work with the anxieties of a world at war, and to celebrate the British landscape for an embattled country looking to its island strengths. His moods are often dark, but these landscapes were painted in dark, tormented days. The postwar work, when his focus had shifted from Pembrokeshire to the South of France, has a brittle, neurotic quality which captures the same spirit as the ‘Geometry of Fear’ sculptors like Lynn Chadwick and Reg Butler. His principal skills are linear and colouristic — the bounding, twisted contour lines of hill or root, the blood-stained palette, with the gush of purple-reds and dark orange which Bacon took over and exploited to such good effect. Sutherland was brilliant at paraphrasing nature from direct observation, a quirkily inventive and richly rewarding artist. It’s very good to have a chance to see him at his best again.

The exhibition starts with the artist in full flow, with a room of key 1940s works, and half-a-dozen canvases of Sutherland painting his art out: the two versions of ‘Green Tree Form’, the beautifully balanced and realised shapes of ‘Mountain Road with Boulder’, the suspended agonies of ‘Red Landscape’ and the breast-like swelling of ‘Folded Hills’. (This last painting reminded me of Zoran Music’s dappled hills, painted around the same time, and now in the Estorick Collection.) The colour is clear and luminous, the drawing exact, the atmosphere deliciously edgy. This is nature red in tooth and claw, though we are not in at the kill. The danger is potential, not actual. Sutherland is a master of this kind of suggestion.

The next room takes us back to Sutherland’s beginnings as an etcher in the 1920s, and displays a group of his densely plotted bucolic scenes, with three Samuel Palmers and one of Blake’s engravings from Thornton’s ‘Pastorals of Virgil’ to emphasise his Romantic origins. I had the privilege of visiting the exhibition with a friend and colleague of Sutherland, the painter John Craxton (born 1922), who stresses the importance for Sutherland of Blake’s late illustrations to Dante. His own dark etchings of barn and pasture have an old-world charm which Sutherland later repudiated, when busy reinventing himself in the 1930s as a consciously modern artist. But his new work was undoubtedly more original. Within a few years of the etched Romantic woodland, Sutherland could make a lovely contemporary statement like ‘Pembrokeshire Landscape — Valley above Porthclais’, with its nervy line and accidental drama.

This lively spontaneity inheres in Sutherland’s best work, despite the fact that he worked mostly in the studio and returned to favourite themes again and again. This can be seen clearly in ‘Welsh Landscape with Roads’ of 1936, with its disjunctions of scale and strange juxtapositions. (Is that the jawbone of an ass or a rotted tree?) In the next room, Sutherland’s vision of landscape opens out beyond the Surrealistic, and already the palette is lightening. Look at the two versions of ‘Midsummer Landscape’ — the preparatory study in this case is far more alive than the finished painting in which the sky seems at odds with the main forms. ‘Dark Hill’ of the same year, 1940, is very dark, a foretaste of the war paintings in the next gallery.

Of these, the furnaces and the open-cast coal-mining subjects are among the best. The tin-mining pictures are not generally known and constitute a worthy extension of Sutherland’s landscape interests pursued from within the earth, rather than on the surface. (He called the mines ‘a world of such beauty and such mystery that I shall never forget it’.) The devastated buildings in London’s East End have a stage-set look to them, which is at once compelling and over-theatrical. (The Tate’s long painting is a fine example of this.) Odder by far and more arresting is the image of dangling machinery, or the twisted girders that in one picture resemble a great tree root, in another the ribs of a ship’s hull. After these dramas, the last room is something of a let-down, with its thorn paintings flanking an unconvincing frog-faced ‘Chimere’, and a couple of ‘Lane’ pictures but not for some reason the famous ‘Entrance to a Lane’ from the Tate.

The exhibition has been curated by the art historian Martin Hammer, who has written the main catalogue essay (this handsome paperback, a bargain at £19.95, also reprints various texts by Sutherland). The selection of works — which is generally speaking an impressive one — does however bear the marks of the academic mind in the inclusion of comparative pictures. These are best reserved for the accompanying publication and not hung in the exhibition to distract the gallery-goer. While the incorporation of historical inspirations such as Blake and Palmer can be justified — particularly when the examples chosen once belonged to Sutherland himself — the presence of a large and handsome Paul Nash painting is not so easily warranted. Personally, I admire Nash immensely, and usually any opportunity to see a painting by him of the quality of ‘Landscape of the Megaliths’ is a welcome one, but in a small exhibition devoted to Sutherland it is out of place. Even more so with André Masson, whose influence on Sutherland is highly debatable. And then to sneak in a Henry Moore miner drawing is, to my mind, downright misleading — it might even be mistaken for a Sutherland. This is trying to be too clever with the exhibits.

The show’s subtitle is also slightly misinforming. What we get is landscape and war work, but only two portraits. Here is the first one Sutherland attempted, of that gnarled old buster Somerset Maugham, looking down his nose at us. It’s rather powerful, even if he did have trouble (typically) with the lower body, and the knee still gives us pause. The other portrait is of his close friend and the author of the first monograph on Sutherland, Eddie Sackville-West. It’s a very sensitive and enthralling piece of work, oddly marred by fingers like sausages or lumps of putty. As an image, it would work best as a head-and-shoulders, and the lower half actually fades away into insignificance rather alarmingly. Strange that Sutherland should have turned to portraiture when his least successful passages of painting in the past had always been those of people. Perhaps it was the loss of contact with his beloved Pembrokeshire, which he began to revisit only in 1967. The 20-year abse nce told on a painter whose vision was essentially landscape-based, and who once had been proud to sign himself G. Pembrokeshire Sutherland. ‘He was a great imaginative artist,’ says Craxton. On the strength of the early landscapes, I’m inclined to agree.

The exhibition travels to the Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham, showing there from 8 October to 11 December.