6 AUGUST 1977, Page 32


Sutherland's gift

Bryan Robertson

The exhibition of portraits by Graham Sutherland at the National Portrait Gallery's delightful new extension at Carlton House Terrace demonstrates very honestly and directly the range of our hero's strengths and limitations — and with illuminating references beyond portraiture. The head-on image of a sad-eyed old lion near the portrait of Adenauer; a sheet of drawn images in which ineloquent lumpen stones are transformed by visual detonation into a semblance of human features and suddenly become predatory or relaxed heads; studies of thorn heads which are about as engagingly human as Magritte's famous painting of a big vulva with a wig on, that looks like a startled woman with pursed lips, and was even used for a while as a window display image by a dashing hairdresser on La Cienaga, LA, until the ladies, rebelled. As I've tried to indicate by the length and substance of my context-placing article last week, this show of Sutherland's has immense importance in itself, apart from the historic fact that it is the first time -that a British portraitist has been honoured in this way, in his lifetime, by the National Portrait Gallery. The installation is so perfect that the exhibition looks like the permanent Sutherland (as portraitist) wing of a great museum. Of course, Sutherland isn't really a portraitist in the usual sense, which is what gives his portraits their special edge. I have to go back briefly to the 'forties in order to explain the full weight and splendour of his achievement. Sutherland was commissioned by his old friend and patron, Kenneth Clark, then in charge of the War Artists, to record the destruction of this country. (So were Moore and many other good artists.) As I've said, he first told Clark in 1940 that he wanted one day to tackle portraiture, and his first commission in 1944 to paint Maugham's pouched and folded phiz seemed an extension of his preoccupations as a landscape imagist with, old stones and thorns. The pouches and folds had a connection with the fiery orange Folding Hills images of sunset and ancient rocks and hill formations in Pembrokeshire.

But the shift of interest and focus wasn't as neat and logical as all that, and it coincided with a shift in locale. In 1947, Sutherland visited the South of France and he has spent several months each year since then living and working there. In that envious, downbeat, censorious manner so readily assumed, not even adopted, by the more negative side of the stoic English spirit (which should of course be outlawed: if you have a headache take an aspirin; if the soup's cold, don't mutter to your wife, throw it at tile waiter is my maxim),

'informed talk' (the 'art world' still twitters and neighs with the same ignorant prattle, now, on other, different issues) had it that the removal to the South of France neatly reflected his switch to portraiture in terms of artistic self-betrayal, sell-out, if not prostitution: floating off, liens, into café society by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea (remember Some Like It Hot?).

I am cheaply and childishly flippant here because even now I get angry at the mean way in which the English treated Gracie Fields, tired, ill, in love with an Italian, probably tax problems (she'd paid her dues everywhere all her life), Noel Coward and other fine men and women when they elected to live abroad in that dull post-war 'utility' phase of rotten weather, ration books and clothes coupons. I went off to Paris in 1947 for a year and had, virtually, the time of my life but I remember the tired, quickly dismissive mood of the time, and Sutherland suffered not only in terms of critical esteem but in the sense that his contemporaries and younger artists forgot him, and his name didn't come quite so readily to mind among committees planning the representation of British art here or abroad. Also, to be fair, we had less opportunity of seeing his work as it evolved, as Sutherland was embraced abroad as a European, living and working either near Menton or in Venice — though he returns each year to spend a month at his home in Kent and perhaps longer in his beloved Pembrokeshire: the source of inspiration for all his early work, and still loaded with mystery, and motifs, for Sutherland.

Once referred to as 'K. Clark's curate' (Clark, the most consistently loyal, generous and imaginative patron of this century in England, was known, with equally joky, mildly derisive — by the unpatronised — affection as the Earl of Moore and Sutherland long before his new role as The Lord Clark Of Civilisation) it's always been hard for Sutherland to secure level, exact, critical scrutiny and appraisal in England. The failure to scrutinise isn't surprising since few here are capable of the exacting act of perception, relying instead on opinions, gossip, reproductions, prejudice and artmarket ratings. But the appraisal has been difficult because for a while Sutherland seemed to be specially protected, the gol den boy exemplifying the most edgy and alert flowering sp far, in the 'thirties, of the English romantic vision.

So that if Sutherland has never been given that weird English critical amnesty awarded to Forster, Britten, Pasmore and one or two others, he occupied what seemed a protected position for long enough to precipitate a reaction. To record the destruction of your country and become, with Moore; a household name, is fine but it isn't 'done' to 'abandon the ship' in search of sunshine as soon as that particular job is over. I suppose you went because you like the light,' I inquired hopefully of Mr Sutherland, on behalf of the BBC recently' in Pembrokeshire and with vague thoughts of proffering a respectable artist's alibi. '1 went because I liked the life,' Mr S. replied briskly, and I must say I warmed to him. He is a rare bird, with the sharpest mind and most subtle wit around, and at seventythree, shooting at top speed along country roads in his gangster's car, he's lost nothing in affable, gentle, easy charm and disconcerting candour — at egually sharp variance with the passionate implications of his art, though the man and his work are in fact one.

Back to paint: when Sutherland was commissioned to paint Churchill, after Maugham an Beaverbrook, there was consternation. Sutherland remembers going to see Churchill and after a long wait in a corridor, a nose came out of a door, accompanied by the extremity of a paunch, and one toe of a shoe: a cautious, not overoptimistic, first exposure to Sutherland's scrutiny. Churchill was himself a painter, didn't specially enjoy Sutherland's work as a landscape artist (let alone in portraiture) and the job wasn't easy. Edward Sackville-West and Arthur Jeffiress, both friends of the Sutherlands, came next and then, in the same year, 1956, as Sutherland completed one of the great twentieth-century portraits, of Dr Paul Sacher, founder and conductor of the Basle Chamber Orchestra and Choir, he began to paint Helena Rubinstein.

The subject clinched the negative arguments about Sutherland's seemingly exclusive preoccupation with wealth, privilege , and the ravaged and elderly; and brought in an extra dimension of possible vulgarity. Mme Rubinstein was a formidable lady, of course, who built up and ran an empire aS the Queen of Make-Up. She had great possessions: an art collection of Western, Oriental, African, Indian and Oceanic art that was extraordinary in its insights; and she was rather less known as a great patron when she endowed in Australia (where she'd worked) the Helena Rubinstein Travel Bursaries which brought the young heirs of Conder, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton — who had once so enriched English art — to England and Europe again. A natural for Sutherland, but this subjeCt was hard too. The face of the Queen of Make-Up was very old, and totally indomitable (see the erect posture, the proud lifted head, the far

seeing eyes) but her sight was perhaps directed at the past or the future: she could no longer physically see so well and she put on her own make-up herself. Sutherland had the acute problem of getting at the face through a barrier of maquillage that, in its relation to the contour of an eye or a mouth, had slipped away from base a good deal so that two lip lines confounded yoq, two eye sockets; there were one or two eyebrows to choose from. The result is a triumph of hectic defiance, from both sitter and artist, in the outrageous richness of colour, the composition which is at once Manet ('La Japonaise'), Empress Wu, Red Indian matriarch and Russian nobility. Mme Rubinstein was of course none of those people, but she was a strong courageous woman, with serious insights into culture and a flair for Clothes and jewels and haircuts that suited her and so the portrait has it all.

How should Sutherland be rated . as a Painter in these portraits? The show underlines what has always been clear to me, that in his use of pigment Sutherland began to Paint where Picasso left off; that is, in the 'thirties when Picasso used paint roughly, abrasively, lusciously, swishly, or opaquely – like enamel put on with a knife as in his Guernica study of a 'Weeping Woman'. Sutherland has often been pigeon-holed as a 'graphic' artist: I've never understood these categories, if you're an artist you Should feel at ease to move freely from drawing to painting to engraving, to sculpture and back again, if you want to. Sutherland's painting has not been properly considered. He uses paint very selfConsciously: he is a dandy and his painting is a dandified performance when his interest is sufficiently aroused – he's an image-maker, first and foremost. The means hardly conconcern him: to be called a 'painter', after all, could imply a certain mindlessness – and Pigment often sits on the surface, hardly in repose, a bit self-conscious, commenting on the image rather more than it celebrates or unleashes it. 'The Laughing Woman' from the great collection of Anne Kessler with its Les Grands Arbres' of Cezanne, the 'Breton Woman Praying' of Gauguin, specially commissioned Duly murals of the family on horseback in the park at Rutland – this Painting should demonstrate Sutherland's cpacities as a 'painter'. We do have a very tight notion, in each decade, of what painting is supposed to look like, and it changes but it's always narrow, tight. I don't think Sutherland has been properly evaluated as a Painter. Some of it, as for Picasso or anybody, is a bit far off, but lapses are rare. What is the competition in this century? ,Kokoschka's mafia plugs his early portraits, °T they're mostly post-Freudian expressionism, and not really remarkable. Sutherland is a post-post-Freudian, like '1-oft Broadway; it's been absorbed g ago, all these people are sophisticated. ! Paint older people because they look for immortality and can afford the time and the money; the younger ones aren't aware of Mortality and don't need portraits. Their

faces are still unwritten books. A lot has happened to older faces.')

Warhol has made some good images of the head, but they're stencilled from photos and it's design, not composition, layout and the editorial decision on pics rather than painting or drawing – and it's the death of portraiture as we know it. Berard's 'SelfPortrait' slumped on the beach in a bathrobe is a masterpiece, so is his 'Portrait of Rene Crevel.' Bacon's portrait heads of Lisa Sainsbury, George Dyer and Isobel Rawsthorne are superb. Giacometti made some good portraits, but his pre-war abstract-surrealist work is the best. Matisse painted his son Pierre at the Pleyel piano framed by a tall window and it's the boy all right, shock of hair over one eye, indignantly at 'The Music Lesson,' and it's a great statement about identity in a complex interior as well as a portrait. Where has Sutherland put his sitters?

When Sutherland painted his vine pergolas in France just after the war he found something tortuous and harsh in vines which implied, through the way in which he articulated their writhing stress and the spaces between them, a crucifixion without the body. This came later with 'The Crucifixion' for Northampton and the painful 'Deposition'. All Sutherland's subjects are set against or are trapped by the same box-like device as he initially used as props and pegs for his fern-root shapes, suspended like personages on an abstract proscenium. The Isenheim altar-piece by Griinwald is the key to most modern art, from Matta's operating theatres in which machines, pistons, seem to be putting the heat on amoeba, blob-like shapes, to Bacon's claustrophobic glass boxes around his Popes and screaming heads, it goes into Giacometti – his 'Palace at 4 am' and 'The Nose', its phallic shape thrusting out of a skeletal box, and a lot

more, and it means that if you oppose the human body, figuration at its keenest, with abstract shapes, geometry at its purest, the crucifixion – in which a body is nailed to a perfect cross – is the most acute expression. of the juxtaposition of organic and inorganic form. Sutherland's portraits are related to his landscape images: in which Matta's 'separation' of organic from inorganic is often synthesised through the way in which the pipes of the machine or the contortions of the roots are fused with human occupancy. The two are one.

Sutherland has filled a gallery, an old laundry, at Picton Castle, near Haverfordwest, with his own collection of his life's works. He wanted to give to Pembrokeshire some return for what he feels he has taken for himself. Picton Castle is beautiful, the gallery is as agreeable and simple as the Musee Picasso at Antibes. There is cultivated parkland all around with exotic trees: silent estuaries flow inland from the sea – it's a great experience to go there and see this bequest to the nation. Admittance will always be free, as Sutherland has arranged all this not to be a burden to the taxpayer. lie loves ,Pembrokeshire; but I think he didn't want to risk having his ears boxed and the charge of 'monumentbuilding,' which is what Moore so disgracefully had (in a protest letter to The Times apropos a proposed gift to the Tate), from ex-assistants too, King and Caro, Whom he's always liked – and imagined they quite liked some of his things. The great collection, his life's work in plaster, is now safely, unthreateningly for English sculptors, in Toronto.

At any rate, Sutherland enjoys seeing his paintings, drawings and sketchbooks, covering forty-odd years of work, at Picton Castle in good daylight from huge windows, and he enjoys adding to the collection with new work – for me astonishing in its power and unpredictability. And so did two old buffers who visited the Oriel Graham Sutherland recently and said 'We didn't understand it, and then we went for a walk in the garden and we came back – and it dawned on us.'

If Sutherland went to the South of France because he liked the life, he went to Venice because it was Venice and he loved Venetian art – Tintoretto, Bellini, who doesn't. But in Venice he wasn't interested in the conventional famous vistas; apart from debris and maehine shops, it was, instead, the shape of a large gondola that touched him most because it reminded him of the Egyptian drawing of 'The Ship of Death' in the British Museum, that he once copied. In this flat barge with sacred Naga-like shapes rearing up, fore and aft, a woman sits in profile on a chair, with a dog on a table.

This haunts him; and I believe there's much

more work to come and which may haunt us. What we need is a definitive Sutherland show in London to jolt our memories and

disperse a few confusions. It would, I know, be a huge surprise.