Visual Arts: A thorny reputation

The paintings of the once-fashionable Graham Sutherland have fallen from favour. Is it time for a reassessment?
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The Independent Culture
ANDRAS KALMAN, that dapper, elderly Knightsbridge art-dealer, lets his hand come to rest, with infinite tact, upon my forearm. "And now I am going to be very indiscreet," he tells me. I bend an ear. We are standing in front of a large oil painting by Graham Sutherland, one of the 40 canvases in a mini-retrospective at the Crane Kalman Gallery, the first major showing of Sutherland's work in this country for a decade and a half. The painting, Thorn Head, is dated 1947. It is one of his characteristically spiky plant forms, with heavy religious overtones.

"I am not really supposed to say who owns what, but I shall tell you that this one" - he points towards it, with a decent glass of red wine in his hand - "belongs to Richard Attenborough. It was just after Gandhi, when you could get a Sutherland of this size for, well, pounds 16,000-pounds 18,000. Dicky was in the money just then, and he said to me, `Darling, let's see what goodies you have.' This was one of them. He bought it."

Andras Kalman, who fled to England from Hungary in 1939, has been dealing in Sutherland since the Fifties. He gave him a show in Manchester in 1956. "The atmosphere was so much easier and friendlier then. There were no such things as contracts..." The sudden decline of Sutherland's reputation since his death in 1980 has saddened Kalman. (The Picasso Museum at Antibes put on a full-scale Sutherland retrospective last summer. It was offered to England. The catalogue had been written, the show already curated. No major English institution would touch it.)

Why did he disappear?

Kalman tells me about attacks on him by the critics for his high living. Sutherland loved staying at the Connaught, dining at Cipriani's. "They said that he'd sold out to the important and the fashionable." He was, he explains, a real "gentleman painter" by the end, feted by Lord Beaverbrook in his newspapers, portraitist to the rich and the famous. Some of these portraits - the early one of Somerset Maugham, for example - were brilliant and quite pitiless (Churchill's wife had his portrait by Sutherland destroyed) - and in no way marred by sycophancy. Many others were decidedly mediocre, probably painted to keep money flowing in to subsidise the expensive life-style appropriate to an English gentleman. Andras finds some of this fairly sympathetic. "It was no easy matter getting into Beaverbrook's or Maugham's circle!" he told me. "Believe me - I tried."

Crane Kalman's retrospective takes us from the Thirties through to the Seventies. From those early years, there are the excellent Welsh landscapes, and some of the fruits of Sutherland's work as a war artist; it was Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery and a great early champion of Sutherland, who helped to keep him away from active service. This work is neo-Romantic and visionary in flavour and owes strong debts to Palmer and Blake. A painting called Tree Forms in Estuary, 1940, in a mixture of watercolour and ink, has marvellously subtle gradations of colour, with ochre melding into lemon yellow.

Sutherland, in a letter to Clark, remarked on one occasion that the miner he was sketching reminded him of Leonardo, such was his look of nobility. Clark, an infinitely sensitive connoisseur with scrupulously clean fingernails, would have appreciated such misty-eyed blather. After the war Sutherland moved to the South of France, and began to paint the kinds of work for which he remains best known, the tortured geomorphic forms with colour applied with a kind of brutish flatness - Palm and House, 1947, for example. Unlike major painters of those post-war generations - Freud and Auerbach, for example - Sutherland was not interested in texture per se, and this strikes the onlooker as a major lack. The paintings hang in front of the eye. They do not invite the eye to enter in. Another difficulty, according to Kalman, may be Sutherland's response to religion. "He was a religious man in an anti-religious age," he tells me. "The thorn he depicted so often was perhaps a thorn in his soul. He had a stillborn child, which caused him immense suffering." Unfortunately, the religiosity seems a little too unsubtle to please at any profound level. The thorns and the spikes come bearing down upon us like heavy-handed symbols of what they are supposed to represent. They prick so much, and so readily, that we say ouch! and jump back; they do not inveigle.

Crane Kalman Fine Art, London SW3, to 5 June (0171- 584 7566)