Exultant Strangeness: Graham Sutherland Landscapes, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Cumbria, UK – review

Artists whose reputations the gods wish to destroy are, often, first made Golden Boys. Graham Sutherland, good-looking, charming, privileged, and a star student at Goldsmith’s College of Art, went on to be one of Britain’s most renowned modernists, an official second world war artist and member of the Order of Merit, who eventually felt distinguished enough to found a museum dedicated to himself. But, as is often the case with acts of hubris, nemesis followed quickly. The museum, at Picton Castle, Pembrokeshire, closed in 1995, surviving Sutherland’s death by just 15 years. Fashionable critics had long been unable to take him seriously. Now the public too had lost interest.

Various attempts have been made to rehabilitate Sutherland. Eight years ago in Dulwich an ambitious exhibition was mounted to put the case for his work before 1950, arguing that its quality so fell off in his later life that the worth of the earlier pieces was obscured. Now Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria, has assembled a medium-sized show that offers a riposte to that thesis. It focuses on Sutherland’s quite distinctive approach to landscape and covers the whole of his working life. So where should we look for the best of this artist?

Sutherland’s career included several significant changes in direction. In the early 1920s he had specialised in printmaking. His talent as a painstaking and atmospheric etcher – deliberately in the tradition of the visionary 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer – brought him early acclaim and an increasingly lucrative position in the market for collectable prints. But the 1929 Wall Street Crash bankrupted many of the collectors on whom he depended, and Sutherland was forced to work as an illustrator until a visit to the Pembrokeshire countryside captivated him and, as he put it, “taught me painting”. But on the evidence we see of his landscape work in the 1930s, contact with Surrealism, and in particular Picasso’s sporadic engagement with it, also had much to do with the matter. Sutherland treats rocks, rivers and trees much like Picasso approached bathers and other figures, but in reverse. Picasso re-imagined human flesh as rock; Sutherland makes his rocks and plants animal- or insect-like, and sometimes quasi-human.

But this is not, in essence, surreal: it draws on ideas in William Blake, Palmer and even D.H. Lawrence, and amounts to a neo-romantic crossover of the spirit between wild nature and humanity. Sometimes the results are obscurely compelling but many of these paintings do not stand up to long scrutiny and some look plain silly. This show has a gouache, “Association of Oaks” (1939-40), in which a pair of trees are equipped with the attributes of Adam and Eve, and another, “A Narrow Road between Hedges” (1938-9), which made me think only of a pair of amorous seals rubbing up against each other. The effect of these paintings is of embarrassment mixed with hilarity: Freud would have been interested, but even he might have cringed just a little.

Sutherland’s working method in landscape was to seize on a detail such as a boulder, a dead tree, hedges enclosing a lane or some other natural form he came across. He would sketch this on the spot, and later a studio painting would evolve. Many landscape artists before him had done much the same – not least Constable and Turner – but Sutherland’s studio hand moved considerably further from what his outdoor eye had seen. He called this “paraphrasing” nature – a word that unintentionally reflects his weakness as a painter. To paraphrase is at best a secondary activity; at worst it results in a mash-up in which obscurity of meaning fights with literalism, or descends into pretentiousness or neurosis.

Too often the latter was the case in Sutherland’s paintings. Some are reminiscent of Salvador Dalí at his conceptual worst, but Dalí’s paintings, whatever you think of their conceptual base, have panache and excellent technique. Sutherland is at times an interesting colourist but his brushwork lacks confidence, and errs consistently on the side of dullness, with the result that it always looks at its best in reproduction, where brushwork matters less.

With all that said, there are excellent reasons to see this exhibition. First, Sutherland was a pioneer of what might be called natural abstraction, a mode that hardly existed before him, but which has since developed in a variety of directions – the land art of Richard Long, for example, and the abstractions of painters such as Per Kirkeby or Ian McKeever. A canvas by another artist working today in a similar register, Hughie O’Donoghue, is actually on display now at Abbot Hall, while they try to raise the funds to procure it for the permanent collection.

Second, there is the relationship between Sutherland and Francis Bacon. When Sutherland was at the height of his fame, and the younger Bacon still obscure, they were friendly and exchanged creative ideas. Bacon’s example impinged on Sutherland’s religious painting (not represented at Abbot Hall) while that of Sutherland pushed Bacon into transformations of nature considerably more radical and shocking than Sutherland’s own.

Finally the Abbot Hall show is recommendable for the best work in it. This generally comes when Sutherland doesn’t merely paraphrase or fetishise the object or the scene under his gaze. The early etchings, though they may be derivative, are beautiful miniatures and quite captivating. On a larger scale, the landscape “Western Hills” (1938-41), which he completely reworked after a gap of three years, has a real Palmeresque glow; so does the late work “Twisting Roads” (1976). Finally, there is perhaps the most impressive of all, “Working on a Cliff Face” (1943), a dark and brooding evocation of a quarry that made me wish to see more examples from Sutherland’s large body of work as a war artist when he, like Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer and others, drew and painted the home front during the second world war.

Until September 18, www.abbothall.org.uk

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