19 January 2012

Graham Sutherland at Modern Art Oxford

It wouldn’t be controversial to say that the standing of Graham Sutherland (1903-80) was at a peak 50 to 60 years ago (for example at the 1952 Venice Biennale). Or that he is currently out of fashion and now remembered for his portraiture on display at Tate Britain (left) and in the National Portrait Gallery. Ironically his most famous portrait, that of Winston Churchill, was destroyed early in its existence. The catalogue for the show, Graham Sutherland An Unfinished World, at Modern Art Oxford (MAO) goes as far as suggesting that Sutherland might be regarded as “underrated, forgotten or having fallen out of favour”. Perhaps this exhibition of his landscapes and works as a war artist, curated by George Shaw, will be part of an overdue upgrading of his reputation, happily coinciding with a revival of attention being paid to landscapes.

Sutherland first visited Pembrokeshire (now Dyfed) in 1934 and for the rest of the decade produced a succession of landscapes there, concentrating, like David Hockney recently in East Yorkshire, on particular favourite locations. Sutherland is not an artist who can easily be labelled and, although he is sometimes regarded as a neo-Romantic, there are marked differences between his work and, say, Paul Nash’s. One influence on Sutherland was Picasso, who he eventually met in 1947, but he was also a contributor to the International Surrealism Exhibition in London in 1936. The style of these contorted landscapes with their searingly bright colours and deep shadows lent itself to Sutherland’s later depictions of the violent and unpredictable re-arrangements of blitzed buildings. Others of his works seem to anticipate Francis Bacon.

Sutherland’s reputation should also benefit from being one of the seven painters (the others are Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney) whose works will be examined in Tate Britain’s forthcoming Picasso & Modern British Art. In old age Sutherland began to feel that he should repay the debt which he owed to Pembrokeshire, so he presented to the region a collection of 15 oil paintings and over 100 watercolours, gouaches, drawings and lithographs relating to the area. These were housed in a gallery at Picton Castle, which I can remember visiting in the early 1990s, but are now in the custody of National Museum Wales. Hopefully they will become accessible again, in part if not as a whole, at Oriel y Parc in Pembrokeshire. It is perhaps unfortunate that Sutherland did not take care of his posthumous reputation more in the manner of, say, Henry Moore.

Unusually, entrance is free to An Unfinished World although a donation to MAO is suggested. Alternatively, for some visitors that might make affordable the purchase of the excellent catalogue which includes essays by Shaw and Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns. It seems carping in these circumstances to suggest that the rooms in MAO (their sequence being slightly bewildering to a newcomer) should each have their own poster explaining the particular theme of that part of the show, but it surely would cost very little and be appropriate when over 80 works on paper are on display.

Graham Sutherland An Unfinished World continues at MAO until 18 March.

My ‘Anticipointment Index’ rating is 1 (ie the best out of 5). Although the show has been mentioned favourably in the national press, it would be unfair to describe it in any way as having been hyped, and no one ought to go away feeling that their time has been wasted getting to know Sutherland’s work better.

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