Monday, 27 February 2012

Graham Sutherland Review

Review of Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World at Modern Art Oxford1

Written by Tiffany Horan

It is refreshing to see an exhibition that supports the fundamental aspects of art, the simplicity behind the image, the connection between artist and medium, artist and subject, artist and paper, trapped and confined within the exquisitely fractured lines of every painting. Graham Sutherland, originally an engineer turned etching artist took a number of years to develop the innovative technique visible in his most memorable landscapes. A print created in 1930 marks a turning point in Sutherland’s imagination, countered only by the change in his work circa 1934, inspired by the bruised, beaten and battered beauty of the welsh landscape in Pembrokeshire, shaped by the elements, exploring the fragile and the weathered.

Whole other worldly, vast, unique landscapes condensed in small doses around the room, hung with care so that whichever piece you choose to look at first guides you seamlessly towards the next. A large space with paintings so small in comparison works well because within those small paintings, the spaces are equally as large. The contrast between the size of the space and the spaces depicted within the work is a fantastic way of displaying work that plays with the idea of strange voids and mysterious plains. It causes the viewer to move towards the image and away again in an attempt to figure out how best to view such perspectives as given to us in Sutherland’s landscapes.

In a letter from Graham Sutherland to a friend in 1943, he is quoted as saying ‘I shall never forget my first visit. I wish I could give you some idea about the exultant strangeness of this place, for strange it certainly is. Many people, who I know, hate it and I cannot but admit that it possesses an element of disquiet.’ I think when viewing the Sutherland’s work one can envisage the disquiet, an uneasy, anxious tension that lurks amongst the gouache lines and watercolour shadows. One can imagine the howling wind slicing through the trees, hail stones crashing upon the ground and even when all is calm and the sun comes up, one hears the stillness before the storm and the noise found in silence is the most intimidating. It might seem like a strange request but I implore you not just to view Sutherland’s work but to listen to it.

Take yourself into the vortex beyond the frame, amongst the jagged rocks and hacked branches, immerse yourself in the strangeness of these landscapes and wander around until you become entangled in the thorn bushes, until you become part of the twisted, tortured trees. Sutherland’s landscapes were influenced by his emotional responses to war, this is clear when we imagine suffering souls transforming into trees, derelict and dark, bombed cities transforming into fields. His menacing imagination flourished during the war and changed his entire perspective, his views of the outside world and emphasised his struggle with the natural world.

An Unfinished World is a wonderful example of how a slightly over looked, once household name can be brought back to life, allowing the public to once again rediscover his genius and his contribution to twentieth century British art.

1. (Accessed 27th February 2012)