To use a modish contemporary artist to lure reluctant viewers into celebrating the arcane, art historical or plain forgotten has become an easy device in itself—famous and preferably young practitioners lending their names to revive interest in what otherwise might be considered drear. Nothing could be further from this exemplary exhibition of Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) that has been produced at the direct instigation of George Shaw, a relatively youthful and certainly fabled British artist, indeed a nominee for the most recent Turner Prize.
Shaw grew up in Coventry and became intrigued by Sutherland through the latter’s notorious tapestry in that city’s postwar cathedral. It could also be noted that Shaw paints one locale repeatedly if not obsessively (said Coventry) and that this exhibition is also almost entirely of one area, Pembrokeshire, the corner of Wales that Sutherland made his own in the 1930s and returned to as a theme at the end of his life. Here then, with absolutely no gimmickry or irony, is a show of some 80 works on paper by Sutherland.
The earliest example is from 1935, the last from 1976, and yet the whole survey seems utterly consistent. And the works’ power only increases for their modest scale, as well as the richness of mediums’ various combinations of pencil, watercolor, colored chalks, ink, gouache, pastel, wax crayon and distemper. They are clotted celebrations of organic and ultimately mysterious forms, as imaginative as they are lifelike.
The works have also been hung with impeccable judgment, not chronologically but rather grouped with that rare visual coherence one might expect of an artist. The first grand, high-ceilinged gallery—with almost Welshly whitewashed walls—contains a continuous line of drawings, and is followed by two small rooms of Sutherland’s thorns and branches. The last large chamber presents some of his wartime imagery. As a mise-en-scéne this exhibition design is ideal. With a single short wall text and one vitrine of sketchbooks, it leads one through the work without any extraneous elements and has a straightforward clarity that makes the potency and peculiarity of the drawings all the more resonant.
And peculiar the works certainly are. Their fluency, technical skill and graphic elegance serve a darker and less certain purpose, exploring psychological as well as physical terrain. Thus in the group of works Study for a Mountain (1945), Mountain & Orange Sky (1944) and Little Mountain in Wales (1944), we are treated to three almost comic versions of a nipple or a scoop of ice cream or an Ubu-esque grotesque, all touched with Sutherland’s signature yellow, a tone as immediately identifiable as Charles Le Brun’s blue.
This tight, tough body of work, gathered here for the first time from a wide variety of private collections as well as institutions, is clearly a crucial episode in the history of Surrealism in Wales, surely the ultimate in rechercheÌ art movements and one as worthy of revival as Sutherland’s own far too long neglected reputation.
Photo: Graham Sutherland: Mountain & Orange Sky, 1944, watercolor, crayon charcoal and ink on paper, 8 3/4 by 7 inches; at Modern Art Oxford.