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Art: A Harsh Ecology

2 minute read

Graham Sutherland began his career as an engineer, and underneath his soft brushwork there still are ruled lines that lend a cubistic solidity to his work. He has designed posters, ceramics, a tapestry for the new Coventry cathedral. His portraits of Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, Lord Beaverbrook are masterful interpretations of character. But when Sutherland works impulsively, he always returns to surreal scenes of natural forms, 25 of which went on view last week in Manhattan’s Paul Rosenberg & Co. galleries.

His aim, says Sutherland, is “to catch and pin down the essence of that aspect of reality which moves me—to fix and mark out the shape of my sensations.” Sutherland’s sensations when he faces nature are far from rhapsodic. He is like a perverse Picasso run riot in a vegetable patch: he draws polyps plopping limply atop earthen walls, a skull looking as if it were a spider’s web peering from a lattice of green leaves. Once he caught a huge toad, put it in a jar and made 50 drawings of it. “He was a very bad sitter,” said Sutherland. “He turned his back on me all the time.”

Sutherland, 60, searches for what he calls “emotional paraphrases of reality.” He sketches while roaming the English countryside or the foothills of the French Maritime Alps near his home in sunny Menton. But he says: “Can you imagine anything more boring than painting mountain gorges?” And what emerges on canvas, as recollected in his studio, is less like Turner than the work of his close friend Francis Bacon, the painter of screaming popes. Sutherland’s is a world that bristles with spiky artichokes and cacti or the angular postures of grasshoppers and mantises.

In Torso, the artist paraphrases anatomy down to a mere presence, where its force is greater than in a slickly limned nude. In The Fountain, he portrays humid decay draping blunt forms that seem relics of a distant past. There is always agony in Sutherland’s garden—or at least, as his biographer, Douglas Cooper, dryly admits, “little evidence ofgaiety.”

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