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Making the unknowns known

by
25 January 2012

A new exhibition of Graham Sutherland’s work prompts Stephen Laird to uncover the artist’s little-known fascination with the writings of Jacques Maritain

Beneath the surface: Graham Sutherland in his studio in 1953 GETTY

Beneath the surface: Graham Sutherland in his studio in 1953 GETTY

IN 1953, at the age of 50, the artist Graham Sutherland was at the height of his fame. He was ob­sessed with his latest series of draw­ings and paintings of strange, totem-like figures, in which reminiscences of the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms are fused. These so-called “standing forms” are alien, and yet oddly familiar: “The unknown is as real as the known, and must be made to look so,” Sutherland explained.

Not only was he well known as an artist: he had, by then, also devel­oped a reputation as a “religious” artist. This had grown while he was in his mid-40s; but, in reality, his fascination with religion dates to about ten years earlier, to the period of most of the pieces currently on show in “Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World”, at Modern Art Oxford.

IN THE 1920s, Sutherland had fallen in love with Kathleen Barry, a fashionably androgynous 1920s-style beauty who was a fellow student at Goldsmiths College School of Art. In 1927, they embarked on a 53-year marriage. Sutherland died early in 1980, and is now buried in the churchyard at Trottiscliffe, Kent.

He was a restless character, who experienced various nagging doubts and anxieties; but his wife devoted herself wholeheartedly to her hus­band’s remarkable career, besides meeting his emotional needs. The couple’s only child died in infancy.

Kathleen came from a devout Roman Catholic family. As a result, it was a requirement that Sutherland should be received into the RC Church before the marriage could take place. The process was no mere formality: it involved a closely supervised period of instruction. In later life, Sutherland was far from devout, but it seems that his initial engagement with the new faith, including some of its esoteric and intellectual aspects, was sustained and serious.

FOR many people, Sutherland’s best-remembered works are his portraits of prominent politi­cians, entrepreneurs, and cultural celebrities of the post-war decades, painted in striking poses. But it was his early, Samuel Palmer-style etch­ings that first demonstrated his prodigious talent. These, and discus­sions about his becoming a Roman Catholic, and his marriage, are where critics start their accounts.

They began to comment about his output in religious terms during a fruitful period in the 1940s, when he was preoccupied with landscape and organic forms. Edward Sackville-West likened Sutherland’s poetic vis­ion to that of the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Using the concept of “inscape”, Hopkins had described how objects have an inner vitality which is evid­ence of the divine “impress”. This quality could be apprehended only through faith or a well-developed visionary capacity. Although this parallel between painter and poet is interesting (Hopkins also became a Roman Catholic), Sutherland is not known to have spoken about it himself.

Later — in the late ’40s and early ’50s — important religious commis­sions came in as a result of contact with Canon Walter Hussey, the man who almost singlehandedly revived church patronage of the arts in 20th-century England.

Of these, The Crucifixion (1946), at St Matthew’s, Northampton, is the most widely acclaimed. The most famous is the tapestry at Coventry Cathedral, Christ in Glory with the Tetramorph (1953-62).

NEVERTHELESS, there is evidence that his religious interests had been been stirring for some years. An arts journalist visited the Sutherlands’ home in Kent in 1952, and casually reported on the layout and ambience of their living room.

Whether or not the couple in­tended their coffee-table books to attract comment (why else leave them on the coffee table?), mention was made. As a result, we know that the artist owned a well-thumbed copy, dating from 1933, of Art and Scholasticism, a collection of essays by the French Catholic philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain (1882-1973).

The observation provides a vital clue to the way in which Sutherland’s Christian faith and theological aware­ness had been an established influence on his artistic vision for a decade or so before he produced what people normally regard as his first conventionally “religious” picture.

What is arguably Sutherland’s best body of work — the small, late-’30s paintings and drawings inspired by the scenery of south-west Wales, together with some of the wartime work — comes from this earlier phase. It is this work that is show­cased in the impressive exhibition at Modern Art Oxford.

What is arguably Sutherland’s best body of work — the small, late-’30s paintings and drawings inspired by the scenery of south-west Wales, together with some of the wartime work — comes from this earlier phase. It is this work that is show­cased in the impressive exhibition at Modern Art Oxford.

Maritain was at the hub of a European Catholic revival in the study of the arts and philosophy in the ’20s and beyond. In a lengthy exposition on the place of art within the Scholastic tradition (featured in the book that Sutherland owned), Maritain introduced his readers to the idea that the part played by an artist can be one of revealing “a world more real than the reality offered to the senses”. A painter or poet, he argued, should be attuned to the deeper truths which inhabit the material world, and able to offer a poetic presentation of these truths to ordinary people.

An artist’s creation may, to an ex­tent, be a “resemblance” in the tradi­tional sense, but “a spiritual resemb­lance” should also be inherent: “real­ism, if you like, but a transcendental realism”.

Visually, Sutherland’s Welsh land­scapes from the ’30s are most reminis­cent of some of William Blake’s more hauntingly imaginative illustrations. Intellectually, they are a fully fledged expression of Maritain’s theological programme.

SUTHERLAND wrote very little art criticism, but one of his most important statements was an essay, “A Trend in English Draughtsmanship”. Written in 1936, it dates from exactly the period covered in the Oxford exhibition. Senti­ments and phraseology taken from Maritain lie behind Suther­land’s paragraphs in which “the disposition of the artist to design from his inner consciousness” is discussed.

Sutherland borrows Maritain’s words to describe how the artist’s part is to create something truly inspired and “poetic”, and how this cannot be achieved “ex nihilo”, as it must be “gathered from the world of created things”. In fact, parts of his essay display nothing less than a “synoptic relationship” with Mari­tain’s writing — a type of relation­ship more familiar to students of the first three Gospels.

In the endnotes of Maritain’s essay “The Purity of Art”, there is a discussion of how the poetry of an artist’s image can help to channel people’s perceptions of an object towards making “the unknown known”.

In his 1936 essay, Sutherland writes in strikingly similar terms when interpreting the work of his friend Henry Moore: “We find Moore discovering one thing with the help of another, and by their re­semblance making the unknown known.” This comment applies equally well to Sutherland’s own works from the same period.

Many landscape painters today describe their work and its insights as “spiritual” — a term so frequently used in the art world that it has ceased to have much meaning. Sutherland, on the other hand, developed ideas about the qualities of his (and other people’s) art at a deeply engaged theological level. There is a real place for God, who, for Maritain, works in a genuine creative partnership with the painter or poet. “The artist, whether he knows it or not, is consulting God when he looks at things,” Maritain wrote.

WE DO not know why Suther­land became so intrigued with Maritain’s ideas. The artist’s biographer, Roger Berthoud, describes Fr Isidore O’Leary, the priest who instructed Sutherland before his reception into the RC Church, as “a sound theolo­gian and keen-witted scholar, very well read and an admirer of Ruskin and Italian culture”. Perhaps Fr O’Leary knew of Maritain’s work, which had first appeared in England, albeit untranslated, in 1923.

Sutherland’s works from the late ’30s and early ’40s remind us that landscape paintings can have a legitimate place within the categories of religious and Christian art, even though they do not normally con-tain familiar symbolism or icono­graphy.

The works displayed in “Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World”, when contemplated in the light of the Maritain connection, also reveal that part of Sutherland’s genius

The works displayed in “Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World”, when contemplated in the light of the Maritain connection, also reveal that part of Sutherland’s genius

lay in his ability to reimagine landscape and nature in a way that, beyond being loosely religious or spiritual, is genuinely theological.

The Revd Dr Stephen Laird is Dean of the Chaplaincy at the University of Kent, and Priest-in-Charge of Blean.

The show, at Modern Art Oxford, Pembroke Street, Oxford, runs until 18 March 2012. Phone 01865 722 733.

www.modernartoxford.org.uk

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