In his 1942 essay ‘Welsh Sketch Book’, Graham Sutherland described Wales as a place of ‘exultant strangeness’. Modern Art Oxford’s survey of 85 works on paper does justice to the sheer oddness of the artist’s imagery in the 1930s and ’40s, which drew upon the landscapes of Pembrokeshire in the west of Wales and – following his appointment as an official war artist in 1940 – scenes of urban devastation and heavy industry. The exhibition is curated by George Shaw, himself a painter fixated by a particular landscape (in his case, the Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry). It derives its title – ‘An Unfinished World’ – from the critic Eric Newton’s response to a 1938 exhibition of Sutherland’s, in which he noted that the artist’s world is ‘an unfinished thing, as though it had been abandoned on the fifth day of creation’.
The main gallery is occupied by studies of landscapes and natural forms which vividly convey Newton’s evocation of a primordial and mutating world. In Pembrokeshire Landscape (1935), a pyramidal bluestone sticks up like a tooth or claw from a web of faded green fields and warped shadows. In the gouache Study for ‘Horned Forms’ (1944), a white structure standing against an orange sky appears part hag stone and part dinosaur skeleton. While underlining Sutherland’s affinities with Francis Bacon (six years his junior), this work emblematizes his fundamental approach of collapsing together objects and epochs. Like other contemporaries, such as Henry Moore and Paul Nash (the subjects of recent retrospectives at Tate Britain and Dulwich Picture Gallery, respectively), Sutherland sought out natural forms which carried echoes of the primeval. Tin Mine: A Declivity (c.1942), for example, conjures impressions of a journey to the centre of the earth like that of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel, travelling both downward and backward in time.
Sutherland didn’t journey abroad until 1944, when he was in his 40s, but the influence of European developments – in particular Surrealism – is manifest. Trees and topographical features are re-imagined as biomorphic contortions redolent of the dreamscapes of André Masson: in three studies from 1944–5, a red-blotted mountain peak resembles a suppurating boil or the crowning glory of a blancmange. Elsewhere, Sutherland’s indeterminate imagery induces the kind of jamais vu sensations described by people who recover from long phases of blindness, of being able to discern shapes and colours yet unable to impute meaning to them.
Displayed in a separate room are the drawings Sutherland undertook in his capacity as a war artist. Sometimes barely decipherable, these show fragmented masonry and twisted girders as well as the quarries where raw materials were being processed for armaments. In Devastation, 1941, East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse (1941), paper coils stand amid rubble under a green sky that could have been transported from a John Atkinson Grimshaw canvas. As with the Pembrokeshire drawings, there is sense of reality playing into the hands of art: bombed-out buildings clearly lent themselves to Sutherland’s tendency to tease apart forms.
Shaw’s background as a painter has not overtly shaped or marked the selection, although a video following him around the exhibition provides an affecting appendix. In this, he expresses interest in those artists, including Constable, who ‘choose a small part of the world and explore it thoroughly’. Shaw’s first major project as curator coaxes parallels between Sutherland’s work and his own, as well as underlining their differences: if Sutherland is a tentative Romantic, Shaw is a deadpan chronicler of urban reality. It also points to the ways in which Sutherland’s oeuvre resonates fragmentarily in other artists’ works. David Hockney’s latest paintings of Yorkshire owe their preternatural colours and lurching perspective (if not their momentous scale) to Sutherland. There is a strange prefiguration of Carroll Dunham’s pictographic paintings in works such as Woods and Estuary (1945), in which a hill is transmuted into a phallic protuberance, its woodland a mass of dashes and curlicues that also suggest hair.
This exhibition reflects a wider resurgence of interest in British Modernism and the neo-Romantic sensibility. Tate St Ives’s exhibition ‘The Dark Monarch’ (2009–10) explicitly traced lines of continuity between Sutherland, Nash and their peers and pastoral undercurrents in works by Derek Jarman, Damien Hirst and others. Sutherland’s early work appeals perhaps to a contemporary inclination towards romanticized recidivism – a desire to reach back both into our own pasts (as Shaw so obsessively does) and into the long history of humanity. Such a dualism was powerfully expressed by Terrence Malick’s recent film The Tree of Life (2011), which interweaves a man’s childhood memories with epic visions of the beginnings of the world.
‘An Unfinished World’ affirms the pivotal role played by drawing in Sutherland’s art as the site of metamorphosis (or what he termed ‘paraphrase’) between direct observation and his finished pictures. The exhibition would have profited from the inclusion of one or two paintings, as well as the etchings of the 1920s which were strongly influenced by Samuel Palmer. The three late works indeed lack the vitality of those from the 1930s and ’40s: Twisting Roads (1976), which could well show the same view as Welsh Landscape with Yellow Lane (1939–40), shares little of its vertiginous collapsing of space and brooding coloration. Yet this extensive body of drawings brilliantly evinces the quality of flux that was central to Sutherland’s art in this period, as well as signalling a re-contextualization of this long-overlooked visionary.