Haunted psychodramas of an artist drowning in the tide of his time

Graham Sutherland - Bacon and Sutherland

February 17, 2006

The scene is probably best set for these books by a quote from Bacon and Sutherland . In October 1938, Eric Newton opened a review of Sutherland's show with these words: "At times like the present it is not easy to keep one's sense of critical values intact. When preparations for the preservation and plans for the extinction of human life and property are between them absorbing so much national energy it is difficult to apply one's mind to less spectacular forms of activity."

Graham Sutherland: Landscape, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-50 and Bacon and Sutherland , both by Martin Hammer, an art historian at Edinburgh University, left me wondering if Sutherland was not so much a competent artist whose career was facilitated by the confusion of war as an exceptional artist who drowned in the tide of his time.

The first book is a catalogue published to coincide with an exhibition held in the summer of 2005 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. After an introductory essay full of biographical detail, Hammer works with a fairly light touch, letting the reproductions of Sutherland's work and some well-chosen essays from the archive do the rest.

Hammer's essay, "A precarious tension of opposites", starts with two observations. The first is that Sutherland's reputation as an artist has, in the 20 years since his death, slipped slowly off the critical radar. The second is that his late work has a tendency "all too often to look overblown and formulaic". However true this may be, as an opener it is difficult for even a British heart not to sink.

Hammer sets the scene by taking us through the middle years of the artist's life, dealing with how the very English Samuel Palmer, then the very European Van Gogh, Giorgio de Chirico, André Masson and Pablo Picasso influenced and helped ideologically to shape and determine the appearance of Sutherland's mature work.

From the archive, Hammer pulls six essays/letters written by Sutherland between 1936 and 1947, then two essays by the two key figures who championed Sutherland: Robert Melville and Kenneth Clark. The image I take from Sutherland's writings is of a man not just struggling to be an artist, but struggling to be. In his "Thoughts on painting" (1951), he starts by telling the reader that "it's bad for a painter to try to explain his work", then proceeds throughout the essay to tie himself into polemical knots explaining his position.

More interesting is the essay that came out of a conversation between Sutherland and the critic Edwin Mullins. In "Images wrought from destruction", he tells a straightforward story of his experiences in London during the war years, about visiting the depths of a mine and of conversations with Clark, who at that time was working in the Ministry of Information.

As a collection of essays, this is a very useful source book, but there is one serious flaw. What will immediately strike the reader who knows Sutherland's work or who toured the exhibition with this catalogue in hand is how different from reproductions of his work Sutherland's paintings look in the original. During the period covered by the exhibition, Sutherland was a tight, measured and prickly artist who at his best turned the everyday into small, precisely drawn haunted psychodramas. The images in this book transform the artist into a full-on 1980s Wagnerian expressionist, which he is not. With a wilfully distorted sense of scale, an over-designed use of bled full-page details and colour turned up full, Sutherland's subtlety and mystery is to a large extent dissipated by the book's designer.

In stark contrast, Bacon and Sutherland starts with a convincing 18-image visual argument - no words, just pictures. With Sutherland on the left and Francis Bacon, arguably Britain's most successful 20th-century painter, sitting on the opposite page, the argument is successfully made.

From the start, the older man (Sutherland) is ahead in the modern art game; by 1945, for about five years, they run neck and neck; then the rest is history. What this excellent book illuminates is a friendship between the two artists and the artistic debt many of us may not have realised that the young Bacon owed to Sutherland.

Together, these books position Sutherland as an artist who worked in the gigantic wake of Picasso's Guernica in order consciously to establish himself and British art as something more than a pale imitation of European art.

Stephen Farthing is professor of drawing, University of the Arts, London.

Graham Sutherland: Landscape, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-50

Author - Martin Hammer
Publisher - Scala
Pages - 176
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 1 85759 404 5

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