Nature Throbbing with Inner Life

British artist Graham Sutherland was preoccupied with brooding, mysterious landscapes

TWO works brought the British artist Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) a particular fame with his fellow countrymen. One was his design for a tapestry in Coventry Cathedral - the new cathedral built after the bombing of the older structure in World War II. For this, Sutherland produced a monumental, hieratic figure of ``Christ in Glory.'' It is noteworthy as an unusual example of a serious modern artist attempting an ecclesiastical commission. The other was his portrait of Winston Churchill. This - a strong evocation of Churchill's appearance and character - was immediately and furiously disliked by its subject. Kept by Churchill, after its initial showing, hidden from the public, it was eventually destroyed.

Looking at the images Sutherland produced in the early part of his career, nobody could possibly have guessed at such notable later events.

At the outset he was an etcher and engraver, a maker of small, rural, and poetic black and white prints, full of a rather mysterious sense of strange places. He was in fact looking back to the etchings and sepia drawings of the 19th century artist Samuel Palmer.

To him, Palmer's pastoral landscapes, informed with a vivid affection for traditional religion, and a love of rather unusual natural details, had been a revelation. The ``real'' world was transformed by Palmer's feeling and imagination - and his style as an etcher, working all over the plate to achieve intense black tones and a kind of sparkling, twilit luminosity, ran contrary to Sutherland's training and appealed to him greatly.

Of himself and other engraving students at Goldsmith's College School of Art in London, Sutherland wrote: ``As we became familiar with Palmer's later etchings, we `bit' our plates deeper.'' (In etching the artist uses acid to ``bite'' lines into a copper or zinc plate. The ink from which the print is made is dabbed or pressed into the etched lines). ``We had always been warned against `overbiting.' But we did `overbite' ... quite unrepentant at the way we punished and maltreated the copper.''

This resulted in prints heavy with a close network of ink lines - an accumulated density of blackness - which Ronald Alley has characterized as ``a dark, rich texture which suggests a kind of pulsation, as though the whole of nature was throbbing with inner life.''

Paradoxically, Palmer, the consciously old-fashioned artist of the previous century, had offered Sutherland a means of rebellion. He was a sort of English Van Gogh in Sutherland's eyes.

But the traumas - and the art - of Sutherland's own century eventually invaded this strongly felt, but somewhat cosy, visionary world. Also, Sutherland's character was far too troubled, far too impressed by the fearsome and the cruel in nature and humanity, for him to go on making art out of the woodlands and cottages of Kent.

The fecundity and essential goodness of the earth, of the fields and trees, which was rooted in Palmer's visions - his pictures are earthly hints of Paradise - was never really Sutherland's. A dryness and sourness, an awareness of nature's weirdness, and hints of some underlying malevolence creep into his etchings.

He turned to designing - posters and pottery among other things - but, more importantly, Sutherland took up painting. And he and his wife discovered an unfamiliar landscape - in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire - that provided him with just the kind of atmosphere and motifs that he needed. This was in 1934.

IN a letter to a friend, Sutherland described eloquently some aspects of this Welsh landscape that came to preoccupy him for many years. Of one special discovery, a cove and beach by the banks of a narrow estuary which they found, he wrote: ``I wish I could give you some idea of the exultant strangeness of this place - for strange it certainly is, many people whom I know hate it, and I cannot but admit that is possesses an element of disquiet. The left bank as we see it is all dark - an impenetrable damp green gloom of woods which run down to the edge of low blackish moss-covered cliffs - it is all dark, save where the mossy lanes (two each side) which dive down to the opening, admit the sun, hinged, as it were, to the top of the trees, from where its rays, precipitating new colors, turn the red cliffs of the right-hand bank to tones of fire. Do you remember the rocks in Blake's `Newton' drawing? The form and scale of the rocks here, and the minutiae on them, is very similar.

``The whole setting is one of exuberance - of darkness and light - of decay and life....

``The right bank has fields above the cliff, some covered with rip corn, others with gorse-clad pasture.... Cattle crouch among the dark gorse.... It is no uncommon sight to see a horse's skull or horns of cattle lying bleached in the sand. Neither do we feel that the black-green ribs of half-buried wrecks and the phantom tree roots, bleached and washed by the waves, exist but to emphasize the extraordinary completeness of the scene.''

The cadence and rather archaic-sounding construction of Sutherland's prose shows how he was influenced not only by Samuel Palmer's pictures, but by his writings. All the same, as he gradually found himself, and produced works which are indelibly his own - like the charcoal and watercolor ``Plants and Tree Shapes before Hills'' of 1944 - many of Palmer's attitudes continued to contribute to his work.

In the Welsh landscape, for instance, he didn't just sit down in it and paint it. Like Palmer he was more intent on bringing into play in his art the potency of memory and imagination. He walked a lot. Palmer did that in Kent as a young man, and dreamed as well. Sutherland made quick notes and drawings. But his paintings were the work of his imagination bringing his encounters with nature into the realm of line and paint, light and color and form.

In the letter quoted above, he also remarked that he learned that ``landscape was not necessarily scenic, but that its parts have an individual figurative detachment.'' This is, in fact, a description of the elements of his paintings in the 1930s and '40s. His identification with natural forms in the landscape caused him to see them as visual metaphors for the animal or human.

In the picture shown here, for instance, the foreground shape of an abandoned and worn part of some tree, twisted and hollowed, is like a skull. It brings to mind the skulls painted by Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico, enlarged and isolated in closeup, as if almost stumbled over on the ground, and through and beyond them the land and sky.

This painting also brings to mind sculptures of the '30s and '40s in Britain, works by Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, in which they discovered the exciting effect of carving their block of wood or stone right to the other side. Moore was inspired by natural objects like bones and flints that he picked up and took home to his studio. So, too, was Sutherland. In fact the sculptural quality of much of Sutherland's painting, his thick, loose black lines curving around some intricately odd forms as a sculptor's chisel would carve it, can hardly be over-emphasized.

Color is a crucial aspect of Sutherland's imagery, and it was often at this period the color of the setting sun - flame, orange, crimson - with intense shadows. He once described the mood of a landscape he saw as being the visual equivalent of the clangor of church bells: His color, likewise, is not in gentle harmonies, it is dissonant and often clashing. But it is often potent in effect, and redeems what might otherwise be a completely bleak view of nature with a kind of bracing, surprising warmth.

After time spent as an official ``war artist'' during World War II, when Sutherland made some impressive pictures of bomb damage and of miners and mines, Sutherland's development tended away from landscape painting as such. His sense of religion seems to have come close to a kind of despair, and he painted a crucifixion which brings together the horrific imagery of Grunewald and Belsen with little suggestion of subsequent resurrection. His tapestry design for Coventry Cathedral evinces more of the man of sorrows than the glorified. This stiff figure to represent Christ has solemnity and some authority, but not much love.

In his attempts at a modern church art Sutherland seems to have become obsessed, for a period, with one landscape detail. That was thorns, and they become a vigorously investigating subject - as if piercing cruelty might be the only thing that could give expressive effect to his images.

One of the few artists to have fallen under the direct influence of Picasso without being swamped by him, Sutherland might be accused, as Picasso has sometimes been, of abandoning the semblance of redeeming humanness in his art. And yet he continued to paint and to renew his ideas, however savage they might be.

Much of Sutherland's later work settles for a kind of bitter theatricality, in which dislike of the world seems to predominate: It becomes husk and shell, beast and insect, thorn without rose. If he makes ``art'' from this withering, hard outlook, it is done by calculated will rather than inspiration. The effect is a fierce sort of symbolism, but not much meaning.

``Plants and Tree Shapes before Hills'' was painted toward the end of World War II, yet it retains the artist's characteristic mixture of tortuous form and rich, evocative mood. Something of Samuel Palmer's love of nature's whole and rounded manifestation persists in it. The war had not killed that.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Nature Throbbing with Inner Life
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today