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The Artist Winston Churchill Loved to Hate
Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-1950 at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Kevin Driscoll (km0d5)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2005-09-02 14:04 (KST)   
Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) continues to be remembered, above all else, as the artist whose portrait of Sir Winston Churchill so offended the venerable figure that he had it destroyed.

Portrait of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, 1954. The oil on canvas painting was later destroyed by Mrs. Winston Churchill.
It was not that the portrait was wilfully "modern" in style, or even poorly executed. Rather, it was an uncompromisingly honest and forthright portrait of a man, who was after all, in his early 80s, frail and physically exhausted. Yet the portrait was also a sympathetic study that managed to convey the gravitas of the sitter, while at the same time revealing an endearing vulnerability.

This reality however collided spectacularly with the image Churchill liked to project of himself; that of the man of action, the no-nonsense, indomitable wartime leader. Given the bold frankness and honesty of the picture, Churchill's reaction to it was perhaps inevitable.

In retrospect, the whole "Churchill Portrait Controversy" proved a double-edged sword for Sutherland. On the one hand, it was testament to the potency of his portraiture. But on the other, the painting brought him a great deal of unwanted and unwarranted notoriety, especially in the popular press.

This was particularly irritating for Sutherland, because he was a serious-minded artist who was deeply committed to his profession. Up until this point, he had established a reputation as one of the most gifted and versatile British artist of his generation.

During the early 1930s he began to be singled out as an artist of considerable promise. A rapid rise to prominence followed, and only a decade later the noted writer Edward Sackville-West, expressed a widely accepted view, when he cited Sutherland along with Henry Moore as "two of the most significant artists of our time."

But the passage of time has not been kind to Sutherland, unlike Moore. Whether or not the "Churchill Portrait Controversy" has had any lasting impact on Sutherland's reputation is difficult to say. What is certain though, is that despite his many evident achievements, Sutherland's reputation has waned since his death in 1980. It is a stark reminder of just how far his stock has fallen, that the last major retrospective exhibition of his work in London was way back in 1982.

But maybe, just maybe, all that is about to change, thanks to the current show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which provides a rare opportunity to re-assess the work and reputation of this long neglected artist.

Sutherland was born in London and at the age of 16 apprenticed to an engineering office in Derby. He very quickly realized that engineering was not for him and after only a year, he returned to the Capital, enrolling at Goldsmiths' School of Art to study engraving.

It is all too easy to forget now, but Sutherland the celebrated painter, actually began his career as a very accomplished engraver. The exhibition opens with a small, but choice selection of the early prints of the 1920s, introducing certain ideas fundamental to the artist's work. On the whole the etchings are wistful, lyrical depictions of a romanticized landscape. This approach to representing nature that has a long and rich tradition in British art, and is epitomized in the work of William Blake (1757-1827) and Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)

Sutherland greatly admired the work of both artists, which he analyzed closely. The comparison between a number of examples of their graphic work, formerly owned by Sutherland incidentally, and some examples of his own etchings, tellingly illustrate what Sutherland took from Blake and Palmer.

The Herdsman's Cottage (1850)
Take for example Palmer's "The Herdsman's Cottage" an exquisite etching of 1850, where the artist manages to elevate the everyday through the reverential seriousness with which the scene is depicted. Ostensibly, the principle subject in the charming vignette of a herd of cattle being rounded up and taken back to the herdsman's cottage at the close of day. But actually, greater emphasis has been given to the richness and abundance of nature; nature is seen as a natural and plentiful provider.

An equally important element in the role played by light. Light is used not just for dramatic effect, but also for its spiritual, specifically Christian connotations. There is a similarly earnest reverence for nature in Sutherland's etching "Pecken Wood" of 1925. Here, the rising sun heralds the start of another day; a lone figure, heavily laden, wanders past a large haystack, which stands before a dense, lush wood.

Both etchings celebrate the fecundity of nature, but Palmer's work, like that of Blake's, reflects a greater emotional intensity. It is as though they see the hand of God at work in nature; theirs is a revelatory vision, which is deeply spiritual. Although Sutherland's prints are not religiously oriented to the same degree, he did, nevertheless, draw an important lesson from the intensity and highly charged nature of both Blake's and Palmer's work.

He gradually came to the conclusion that states of mind or certain emotions could to a large extent, determine the way we perceive the world around us. In other words, he realized that as he put it "Strong emotions could change the appearance of things." This realization was a significant discovery for Sutherland and underpinned the subsequent evolution of his entire oeuvre.

But just as he was beginning to make some appreciable headway in his chosen field, Sutherland was forced to abandon engraving because of the collapse in the print market, which came about as the result of the Great Depression. Besides, by the early 1930s, he was becoming increasingly drawn to oil painting, owing to the greater flexibility and versatility of the medium. Not only did he relish actually handling the pigment, but he also thoroughly reveled in the new freedom color gave him over the monochrome of etching.

Sutherland's paintings from this period developed into two quite distinct categories. The first comprised of natural forms such as rock formations, exposed tree roots or decaying tree trunks etc. Often such elements are isolated from their landscape setting and subjected to a process of abstraction and transformation, and through this process they have taken an association with human or animal imagery.

A particularly fine example is "Red Tree" of 1936, in which the pinky-red amorphous form of the tree is seen against an indeterminate plain red background, upon which is cast a somewhat menacing black shadow. The so-called tree has been transformed in such a way that it appears for all the world like some stunted, reclining figure, propped up on one elbow.

It is a strangely compelling and arresting image, foreshadowing those viscerally disturbing "creatures" who inhabit the picture "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," by Francis Bacon and painted in 1944 at about the time he and Sutherland became firm friends.

Sutherland's more panoramic compositions, by contrast, depict feral landscapes. The main inspiration for such paintings was the wild and rugged terrain of the Westerly most part of Wales, specifically West Pembrokeshire. But in reality, these are not landscapes in any conventional sense. Thanks to his association with Surrealism and its English off-shoots in the mid 1930s, Sutherland was able to re-interpret nature, to transform natural landscape into landscapes of the mind.

In "Welsh Landscape with Roads" of 1936 for example, he dissects the composition with winding, twisting roads. The palette is somber; limited to earth colors, while conventional notions of perspective are skewed in favor of a flatter, more two-dimensional effect. The wonderfully odd, dream-like atmosphere of the picture is accentuated by the fearsome looking animal skull in the foreground and the disc-like sun that hovers in the sky above three cone-shaped haystacks.

Welsh Landscape with Roads (1936)
©2005 Tate Museum
But perhaps strangest of all is the barely discernible figure in the far distance, who floats or runs along a road, as if fleeing some diabolical fate. In these paintings a premium is placed on the suggestive and associative potential of nature. Although always firmly rooted in the physical world, the artist was nature as a key to unlock the inner world -- the world of the dream or sub-conscious. The equivocal quality of many of the paintings between the actual and the imagined gives them a seductive ambivalence.

But Sutherland was not the sort of artist who evolved a style and then stuck to it -- he responded to events around him and with the outbreak of World War 2, his work underwent significant changes in a number of respects. From 1940 to 1944 he worked as an official war artist and like many others who were selected, he was charged with recording the war, wither at home or abroad, as the country faced the imminent threat of invasion and the possible destruction of a whole way of life.

Sutherland chose to record the devastation wrought by German aerial bombing raids on the home front. Curiously, the early works such as "Devastation: House in Wales" or "Design for Poster" both painted in 1940, are disappointing. Executed in a very matter-of-fact way, they are rather dry, perfunctory efforts. The artist is too emotionally detached and as a result, these pictures lack the emotional punch expected with such highly emotive subject-matter.

Particularly baffling is "Devastation: City, Ruined Machinery" 1941, which resembles a Heath Robinson invention or design for a kinetic sculpture, instead of the smashed and mangled piece of vital machinery. That said, these early works can be put down to the artist finding his feet or coming to terms with his new role and the restrictions that it placed on him.

Whatever the reasons, Sutherland soon overcame the early difficulties producing pictures that are among his finest achievements, such as "Devastation in the City: Twisted Girders Against a Background of Fire" 1941 or "Devastation: City, Twisted Girders" 1941. These relatively small pictures distil the horror and violence wrought by indiscriminate aerial bombing.

In these works he conveys with great economy of means a palpable sense of utter loss and despair. The twisted and charred pieces of metal, rubble and other debris are used poignantly as a metaphor for so many innocent civilians killed or maimed. These pictures were given a grim topicality and chilling resonance with the sort of images that have emerged of the appalling events here in London over recent weeks.

During this period, Sutherland also tacked subjects relating to industrial production and the war effort in general. He painted and drew ruins in Cornwall, steelworks in Cardiff and Swansea as well as open-cast coal works. His work, coincidentally, becomes less abstract and much more representational. But perhaps more importantly, an element emerges not really evident before; a preoccupation with his fellow man.

In several of the early etchings a Palmeresque figure or two wanders by, but their absence would not really be noticed, they are merely adjuncts to romantic pastoral scenes. When figures appear in the landscape paintings, they are only accents. But in the war pictures Sutherland begins to introduce figures in a more meaningful way.

Two Miners Drilling (1942-3), crayon & watercolor on paper, Laing Art Gallery (Tyne & Wear Museums)
Take for example the marvelous series he did of miners. This series is particularly successful precisely because the artist invests the miners with a magnificent nobility; they are seen as the unsung heroes of the war effort on the home front. Sutherland himself felt that: "... it was as if they were a kind of different species -- ennobled underground".

The sympathy and admiration he had for the miners and steel workers is highlighted in the comparison between Sutherland's "Miner Probing a Drill hole" of 1942 and Henry Moore's "A Miner at Work" of the same date. Sutherland's picture contains a freshness of approach to the subject lacking in the Moore. Moore's miner is inert, rock-like and sculptural, whereas Sutherland's miner is less static and seems acutely aware of his dangerous environment, giving the work a heightened sense of tension.

The final room in the exhibition covers a six-year period from 1944, concluding that from the 1950s, Sutherland's most creative years were behind him. This is a puzzling assertion since the evidence suggests otherwise. For it was from the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s that the artist, at last, felt able to meet head-on, one of the greatest of all themes -- humanity.

Somerset Maugham (1949), oil on canvas, Tate
In 1944 he was invited to paint an "Agony in the Garden" for St Matthew's church, Northampton, but instead opted for a crucifixion that he painted in 1946. In the immediate aftermath of World War 2, Sutherland infuses this central Christian image with an even greater sense of heroic suffering than usual. The slumped head and ghostly white frame of Christ, suggests that the process of rigor mortis has already set in.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in claw-like, upturned hands of the Savior that are expressive of an overwhelming anguish. Between 1954 and 1957 Sutherland continued working on this theme with his ambitious design for the magisterial tapestry "Christ in Glory in the Tetramoph" for the new cathedral at Coventry. Inspired by Byzantine art, it is an imposing image on a massive scale.

Just three years later, he accepted another commission to paint a crucifixion for St Aidan's Catholic Church in East Acton, London. In both this and the Northampton painting, the spirit of the great 15th century German master, Mathis Grunewald is vividly evoked.

Another key component of Sutherland's work during this period is portraiture an unexpected genre at which he excelled. Take his portrait of Somerset Maugham painted in 1949 and the star of the exhibition's final room. This was the artist's first major portrait, but it does not in any way lack assurance or psychological penetration.

As John Rothenstein noted: "In Maugham Sutherland achieved a searching likeness: bone structure, expression and habitual pose are precisely as those who knew him remember them..."

Less extrovert perhaps, but just as striking is the 1953-54 portrait of Edward Sackville-West, which hangs alongside the Maugham in the exhibition. Eddy, whose comments on Sutherland were noted earlier, was a writer, music critic, habitue of the Bloomsbury Group and cousin of Vita Sackville-West.

In the portrait, Sutherland depicts him sitting cross-legged on a simple wooden chair. His nimble fingers knit together anxiously, while his delicate, patrician features betray a slightly questioning frown. It is a sensitive portrait of rare insight. In 1954 came the notorious Churchill portrait and three years later Sutherland painted a stunning portrait of the feisty and single-minded Madame Rubenstein in all her finery.

So if anything, the late 1940s and 1950s herald a remarkable flowering in Sutherland's creative powers. On the whole, the exhibition is a thoughtful, highly focused and partial account of the artist's career. Admittedly, this approach has been somewhat imposed on the gallery because the limitations of space.

It is arranged chronologically, exploring the period from the mid 1930s to the 1950s and concentrates specifically on the landscapes of Pembrokeshire and the South of France, before and after World War 2, respectively.

But the revelation of the show is the war pictures which are, with a few notable exceptions, among his finest works. Good use is made of comparative material, through which a number of important points are illuminated. But ultimately, despite all its merits, the exhibition serves only as a prelude to a much-needed full-scale survey of the artist's career. How about it Tate Britain!
Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-1950 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, June 15 to Sept. 25. It then moves to Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham, England, Oct. 8 - Dec. 11, 2005.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Kevin Driscoll

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