Unfinished World, Graham Sutherland curated by George Shaw, Modern Art Oxford

Text by Asana Greenstreet

Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) was an official World War II artist from 1941-44. He was commissioned to paint scenes of bomb devastation, as well as work in mines, quarries and foundries. He is a modernist painter who stands on his own two feet: moving away from the traditional representation of landscapes, however formerly innovative, treating the paper and the relief as a live entity. As a doctor would a patient, Sutherland examines every possibility and change through the medium of painting, and produced a vast collection of works on paper that scrutinise, explore and spiritualise the landscape he sees before him.

This exhibition at Modern Art Oxford brings together 85 of Sutherland’s lesser known works which are given a contemporary jolt by the artist-curator George Shaw. In a short film in the gallery’s basement, Shaw explains his interest in Sutherland’s painting, of the obsessive reworking of a familiar landscape. It comes as no surprise that Shaw admires and is inspired by Sutherland. Shaw’s interest in landscapes personal to him, rendered in all their painterly mimesis, won Shaw his Turner Prize nomination this year.

Interestingly, the anticipation of odd juxtapositions and positioning of artworks in an artist-curated show is missing. Shaw clearly sees merit in Sutherland’s work, aligning him with the old Masters such as Constable and Van Gogh. He refreshes an interest in Sutherland’s practice, and gives the viewer a space to contemplate Shaw’s thought that
“it seems he [Sutherland] always has something else to say, but never quite does”. There is ample space to contemplate each painting, and the display case that shows three of Sutherland’s sketchbooks make a nice addition to the show, as the visitor can match an initial sketch to the finished painting.

Certain elements of the exhibition are easy to read: the colour juxtapositions of the pre, mid, and post war paintings are evident in their respective depiction of calmness, darkness and a renewed positivity of life. This is also seen in a change of medium, from gouache to a mix of crayon and ink that display a thickened obscurity to the picture space. However simple in their semiotic parallels between art and life, these techniques are powerful, and hold the viewer’s attention throughout the exhibition.

The Devastation series, painted in 1941, in all their darkness indicate approaching death, and imagine an apocalyptic atmosphere ever so relevant to their contemporary social context. These war paintings also depict elements from nature such as thorns and trees, and Sutherland gives them anthropomorphic qualities, as if holding a mirror up to man as he gazes at nature. As the trees scream out their pain through human-like orifices in Dwarf Oaks (1941), the viewer recollects the horrors of the war, and even of the memory of the concentration camps, where Thorns (1945) appear as a vicious barbed wire matrix that press any sign of jovial life deeper into the image. This aligns Sutherland in the same camp as Francis Bacon, using similarities between the figure and nature to draw out narratives of horror in the human psyche.

How resonant and appropriate this lesson is today. Wars fought because of politics, ideology, and religion bring out the worst in human nature, resulting in a tangible destruction of earth’s landscape. If this stands as true today as it did then, Unfinished World is a potent title for this exhibition, as it indicates not only Sutherland’s implicit ideas of human nature, but as history repeats itself, so will humans continue to destroy their relationships between each other as well as with nature.

Unfinished World, Graham Sutherland curated by George Shaw, 10/12/2011 – 18/03/2012, Modern Art Oxford. www.modernartoxford.org.uk

Two film screenings selected by George Shaw which accompany the main exhibition will take place on 13 January between 7 – 8pm.

Wales – Green Mountain, Black Mountain (Dir. John Eldridge, UK, 1942) takes its title from a classic piece of wartime propaganda written by Dylan Thomas under the instruction of the Ministry of Information. It presents idyllic images of a Welsh landscape, the work ethic of its communities, and their pastimes and traditions. The film features evocative footage of the Welsh countryside, which inspired many of Sutherland’s most enigmatic works.

Sutherland in Wales (Dir. John Ormand, UK, 1978) is a BBC documentary which provides a rare insight into the artist and his life-long interest in the Pembrokeshire landscape. Coinciding with the creation of the Graham Sutherland Foundation at Picton Castle, the film follows the artist on a walk through the Welsh countryside, as he explains the inspiration behind his work and his efforts to build up a repertoire of unique shapes and forms.


The Wanderer, 1940
Pencil, watercolour and conte crayon on artists’ board
47 × 61cm
Victoria and Albert Museum
© Estate of Graham Sutherland