December 16, 2011 8:21 pm

Graham Sutherland on show

A new show reveals how Graham Sutherland’s engagement with Pembrokeshire unleashed his imagination

What do Turner Prize nominee George Shaw, deadpan painter in Humbrol enamel of Tile Hill, the dystopian Coventry housing estate where he grew up, and Graham Sutherland, would-be toff and wartime lyricist of the plunging cliffs and winding roads of Pembrokeshire, have in common?

Shaw, who has curated Modern Art Oxford’s excellent new show of mostly 1940s Welsh landscapes, Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World, has never been to Pembrokeshire. This has not stopped him making a tremendous selection of glowing works on paper – from the steep golden road rising like an arabesque towards the setting sun in “Welsh Landscape with Yellow Lane”, to the phantom trees and boulders in the damp woody gloom of “Rocky Landscape with Sullen Sky”, to the formal, near-geometric “The Thorn Tree”, stark against a bright turquoise ground, suggesting the crucifixion. With them, he demonstrates the full range of Sutherland’s engagement with the place that unleashed his imagination.

Shaw had no wish to measure these images against the real thing because in Sutherland he recognised “a familiar ambition. He’s not interested in things, certainly not things as they are, but perhaps in what they once were and will be, what they could be. Nothing in his landscape answers anything.” The same is true of Shaw’s own ambivalently representational pictures – bizarre angles, disconcerting erasures – centred on one place, showing at Baltic’s Turner Prize exhibition. Both artists queasily ape naturalist conventions but are painters of time as much as space. That is surely why Shaw particularly selects Sutherland’s most provisional, metamorphosing images.

In “Pembrokeshire Landscape”, a path recedes into distance, shadows claw across hills in the shape of hooves and horns, then, as the path bends, Sutherland simultaneously imagines it going straight on and scribbles a series of dotted lines to form a ghost road beyond the horizon line into the sky. In “Dark Hill Landscape with Hedges and Fields”, hills fold into each other, are abstracted into dark stains, then suggest slithering creatures dissolving into pools of water. “Two Trees” are anthropomorphic monsters, twisting, clutching, with branches like arms ending in spiky hands. An echo of Macbeth’s walking Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane as much as surrealism, Frances Spalding once noted of Sutherland’s curling forests. And the crimson-topped “Little Mountain in Wales”, which I had considered a romantic image, Shaw reads as a burst blister, leaking down livid orange channels to the foreground foliage.

Graham Sutherland painting

Frequent use of a menacing, industrial orange – repeated in “Landscape with Rocks”, “Folded Hills” and the cavernous, flame-like “Tin Mine: A Declivity” – connects Sutherland with Francis Bacon. So does the claustrophobia – tightly packed strips of field, walls of rock blotting out light, twigs lying like snakes in wait, blackened gorse, roads compressed into tunnels – which Sutherland imposes on a landscape that is, in fact, broad and open.

Including Sutherland’s work as an official second world war artist, Shaw pinpoints the mood of entrapment and apocalypse that unites the Pembrokeshire images and the war drawings in tone, darkened palette and manipulation of collapsed and morphing forms as flotsam or debris. The yellow-black “Twisted Girders” resemble gnarled trees. In “Outcast Coal Production: Excavators Uncovering a Coal Seam”, earth and rock are churned from underground to overground like the merging of field and sky or the tangle of roots and shoots in the landscapes. “Fallen Lift Shaft” unfurls like a broken kite, the vertical turned into a limp horizontal sprawl.

Like the landscapes, and like Shaw’s own paintings, these are unpeopled, empty, still, fixing a moment in time but also timeless. If Sutherland’s Pembrokeshire makes the ancient geological past contemporary, cool lunar scenes such as “Study of a Collapsed Roof” and “East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse” recreate war-ravaged Britain as futuristic horror. In the catalogue, Shaw quotes TS Eliot’s “Little Gidding”, written in 1942, to underline Sutherland’s sense of time past and future held in the present of painting: “Through the unknown, remembered gate/ When the last of earth left to discover/ Is that which was the beginning.”

Both poet and painter were Catholic converts, using the doubting, fragmentary language of modernism to spiritual effect. Though Sutherland was not devout – he said he did not go to church because he was claustrophobic – he did find Catholicism “an infinitely valuable support to all my actions and thoughts. Some might call my vision pantheist. I am certainly held by the inner rhythms and order of nature: by the completeness of a master plan.”

Graham Sutherland painting

You see that rigour here but the charm of these works on paper, with their evocative surfaces in chalk, gouache, watercolour, black crayon, ink and wash, is also that they are less grandiose, and so more persuasive, than Sutherland’s finished oils. Light breaks up the darkness through delicate layers – pinks piercing the clouds behind black hills in “Carn Llidi Pembroke”, patches of pale green shining through the dusky grey spirals of “Dwarf Oaks”. Everywhere the balance is between the hidden and the revealed: thus the “unfinished world” of the title. Drawing, Sutherland wrote, is “enchanting to me and exciting. One feels one has no responsibility (as one has in painting) – or if one has, only to these so-called inanimate objects: they do not press me. There is simply the fascination of things seen, and trying to understand the principles of what one sees.”

After the war, Sutherland settled in the south of France; Shaw says he was futilely “trying to suck up to Picasso in Picasso’s back yard, then ... returned to Pembrokeshire like some kind of prodigal shit in the shuttered château”. Announcing in the 1970s that his Mediterranean sojourn was “one long and regrettable gap, brought about by the fact that I thought I had exhausted what the countryside had to offer”, he took up his Pembrokeshire motifs again. This show opens and closes with a sunset: shafts of yellow and red setting the landscape alight in “Sun Setting Between Hills” of 1937, a vast disc in a grey sky illuminating “Twisting Roads” in 1976.

“Four Quartets” comes to mind again: “In my beginning is my end. In succession/ Houses rise and fall, crumble ... Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires/ Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth/Which is already flesh, fur and faeces.” Stylistically, there is little difference between the sunsets separated by 40 years because Sutherland is an unchanging visionary: navigating English romanticism and European modernism, nostalgia and the avant-garde, peace and war, he created out of the mix his own disquieting transformations, never better executed than in the rarely seen works on paper that Shaw has superbly gathered here.

‘Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World’, Modern Art Oxford, to March 18, www.modernartoxford.org.uk; Turner Prize, Baltic, Gateshead, to January 8, www.balticmill.com

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