Fatally flawed by time

He used to be talked about in the same breath as Henry Moore. Whatever happened to Graham Sutherland? By David Cohen
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The Independent Culture
There is some historic irony in staging a Graham Sutherland retrospective at the Picasso Museum in Antibes, for time has assassinated this once formidable reputation, and the sunny Riviera was the scene of the crime.

The Musee Picasso's thorough and substantial exhibition is accompanied by the only significant recent publication on the artist. In his heyday, Sutherland's name was spoken in the same breath as Moore's and Bacon's as one of England's premier contemporary artists, but even before his death in 1980 his name began to slide from the history books.

And the culprit (according to some) was the Cote d'Azur, where he went to live in the Forties. At his best, Sutherland was the creator of a tough, gritty, awkward, ambiguous metaphysical nature-painting. His aesthetic, detractors said, overripened and softened under the southern sun.

Sutherland launched his career in the twenties as an etcher of romantic landscape idylls inspired by Samuel Palmer. He might have continued in this conservative vein had the Wall Street crash not ended the print boom. He was forced to try his hand at various arts and crafts and turned to painting as his principal means of expression. Leaving Palmer behind him, he went to a real landscape (Pembrokeshire) for inspiration, and was mesmerised by gnarled roots and lightning-blasted trees that showed nature in a dramatic state of transformation. The Antibes retrospective starts here, skipping the print-making debut. The weird, menacing forms that Nature offered him tipped his intense romanticism into the idiosyncratically English brand of Surrealism being pursued at the time by Paul Nash and Moore. Sutherland did in fact exhibit in the legendary International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.

His Thirties nature studies tended to be dark, murky and brooding to the point of inscrutability. Keeping the same palette and mood, he injected tighter clarity into his style when he was commissioned as an official war artist (on the recommendation of his friend Sir Kenneth Clark), tackling such subjects as an iron foundry and open-cast mining in Wales. Sutherland's work is at its best when he strikes a balance between his fascination with the complexities and ambiguities of Nature, and his sense of graphic control. If either tendency gets out of hand he can slip into the opposing extremes of illegibility or illustration.

His visit to the South of France in 1947 was a turning-point. He met Matisse and Picasso in person, but it was in the recently bequeathed Picasso Museum in Antibes (in the Palais Grimaldi, which the Spanish artist had only recently used as a studio) that Sutherland experienced an epiphany. It was there that he realised how to combine the metamorphoses of Nature with the iconic centredness that's only really possible in figure compositions.

He began a series of what he called "articulated forms", which grew into the standing forms, one of the most impressive of which, from 1952, is on loan to the exhibition from the Pompidou Centre. These menacing hybrid creatures, mutating before our eyes and yet almost statuesque in their poise, represent the perfect synthesis of fantasy and observation in Sutherland's art. And it was no coincidence, by the way, that his standing forms were exact contemporaries of John Wyndham's triffids: both grew from the same angst-ridden neo-romantic moment.

Sutherland's peak years were marked by major public commissions which absorbed his energies. In 1951 he painted a huge mural, The Origins of the Land, for the Festival of Britain, and for the rest of that decade he was absorbed in the great tapestry for the new Coventry Cathedral, his Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph (dedicated in 1964).

The 20th is an unforgiving century for artists whose reputations hang on fixed projects, and it is likely that this problem has added to Sutherland's posthumous decline. But his big commissions generated copious studies and cartoons, some of which are in the Antibes show. Another legacy of Coventry is that it gave Sutherland a taste for ambitious scale and complicated iconography, firing his dramatic large-format canvases of the Sixties and Seventies.

Even while he lived in southern climes, Sutherland imposed on his new landscape his northern romantic sensibility. True, the Riviera light encouraged a brightening of palette with daringly modern pinks and yellows and acerbic oranges; but his landscape vision had none of the luxe, calme et volupte we associate with Cote d'Azur artists. Instead, he seemed to eke out of palm palisades and vine pergolas the gnarled contortions of form encountered in the Welsh landscape.

In 1967 he visited Pembrokeshire for the first time since the Thirties with Italian TV, who were making a film about him (his reputation in Italy is still considerable). This reconnection with a landscape in true harmony with his aesthetic vision rejuvenated his nature studies. Literally, he went back to his roots.

Another bugbear of Sutherland's reputation was his portraits. He was not essentially a figurative artist. He in fact drew his first human figure, for a crucifixion commissioned by the Rev Walter Hussey at St Matthew's Parish Church, Northampton, only in 1946 (the same church has Moore's Madonna and Child). In 1949 a chance remark to a mutual friend that his fellow Riviera resident Somerset Maugham had the kind of face he would enjoy painting led the writer to commission a portrait. At first reluctant, Sutherland went on to produce two remarkable studies of Maugham.

Later he undertook the portraits of Helena Rubinstein, Conrad Adenauer and, notoriously, Winston Churchill, who so detested his likeness (a gift from Parliament) that Lady Churchill had it destroyed.

Sutherland had a knack for seeking out a fatal flaw in his sitter's features. He liked to paint distinguished people (turning down many commissions if the personality didn't interest him) which meant that, most often, he painted older people with active minds. To some, the results are remarkable; to others they are caricatures. A story is told of an attempted reconciliation between Sutherland and his one-time friend Bacon. Their first lunch together for years was going so well that Sutherland risked the younger man's sharp tongue and asked his opinion of his portraits. "Fine", said Bacon, "If you like Time magazine covers."

A closer look at his best works in portraiture, the second version of Maugham, for instance, included in the Antibes retrospective, belies this put-down. True, it's a likeness, faithful to the living presence of the sitter, and its animated quality has an illustrational edge. But the power comes from looking at the face as a natural thing, finding its "fatal flaw" as the element that gives life and betokens death. In other words, a Sutherland face, like his tree trunks or mutating biomorphs, reveals the intensity of metamorphosis.

The Graham Sutherland retrospective runs until 11 October at the Musee Picasso, Antibes