A chance to watch, admire the distance

ImageGraham Sutherland: A Biography,

Roger Berthoud,

Faber & Faber, 0571118828

What do you do with an artist who was faithful to his wife, was only involved in a few mildly political art-world scandals and whose output while prolific, imaginative and at times provocative, failed to propel him to the highest tier of artistic genius? If you are Roger Berthoud you tell the story straight but you tell it well, you don’t over-write the minutiae of daily living, nor do you laboriously de-construct the paintings and you make sure that the inspiration, development and the trajectory of the subject’s career are clearly delineated. This was a good read for the quality of the writing – the author does not impose his imaginings on the subject’s mind, he doesn’t pursue any obvious agenda and he lets the voices of the principle players tell the story.

If Sutherland is not in the top flight of artists, to be spoken of in the same breath as his contemporaries Picasso, Braque, Ernst, Moore and Freud, then he is at the head of the British pack bubbling under – Bacon, Hepworth, Hodgkin, Hitchens, Nash, Nicolson, Piper and Spencer. His vision is singular, his inspiration owing as much to Blake, Grunewald, Palmer and Turner as to Bacon, Nash and Picasso. His war artist work is compelling, decisive and poignant. Concurrent with that was the discovery of form in the landscape of Pembrokeshire which was also the most fertile channelling of his genius and the explosive flowering of his mature style: here it was that he understood that landscape is ‘not necessarily scenic, but that its parts have an individual figurative detachment’. His post Holocaust Northampton Crucifixion was visceral, potent, uncompromising and absolutely right for its time. The massive and overwhelming Christ in Glory tapestry for Coventry Cathedral contains a surprising amount of subtlety and theology for such a brazenly monumental work. His portraits were intriguing, mainly honest, often hard wrought and not always successful in pleasing or flattering, but when they worked conveyed the essence of the sitter with an almost clinical starkness.

I’m a Sutherland fan and thought that last year’s museum of Modern Art, Oxford, exhibition ‘Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World’, which majored on his war artist work and his Pembrokeshire paintings, was a profound meditation on the sacrament of the present moment to be found in releasing the unknown forms from the known shapes thrown up by the land. Berthoud’s biography gave much needed background for understanding the hard graft involved in not just translating the vision to the page but in teasing out what that vision mght be in the first place. While at times Sutherland’s forms can become simplistic or formulaic or perhaps so personal as to have no resonance with anyone other than himself at his best they are totemic, liminal, exquisite, disturbing and satisfying. In Berthoud’s biography I found my knowledge of the artist enriched without his worth being over-stated and my pleasure in studying his work enhanced without the details of his life diminishing their mystery.

Illustration: Untitled, Charcoal, chalk & pencil on paper, 1943; collection of R Q Greatrex


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