Too many years have passed since the last great exhibition of Graham Sutherland in Italy.
Sutherland is now brought to the attention of the italian audience thanks to the initiative of the Fondazione Magnani Rocca of Mamiano di Traversetolo (Parma) from the 8th of September to the 9th of December 2012.
They exhibition takes place in the halls of “Villa dei Capolavori”, the seat of Fondazione presided by Giancarlo Forestieri, next to the famous works by Dürer, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Goya, Monet, Renoir and many more. In these rooms, where the founder Luigi Magnani used to talk about art with his friend Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland and his works find an identity in the European figurative tradition.
The exhibition, curated by Stefano Roffi, is accompanied by a large catalogue embellished by an extensive essay of Martin Hammer, professor of the University of Kent and scientific consultant of the Tate Britain in London, presently the most qualified international researcher of the artist.
Fondazione Cariparma and Cariparma Crédit Agricole are the patrons of the initiative.
Graham Sutherland (London 1903 - 1980) started his career as engraver and teacher at Chelsea Art School. As an artist, he showed great interest in landscapes, the Welsh landscape in particular, dealing with a critical interpretation of pictorial tradition. At the beginning, he was inspired by English neo-romanticism, but from the 30s his painting could be described as disturbing and impregnated with visionary dramatic power, getting close to Surrealism, whom the artist will share the London exhibition in 1936; in this period, he was influenced by Picasso and Klee. Sutherland was clearly inspired by Romanticism and William Blake’s sublime poetics, but he reinterpreted it in a negative and bitter viewpoint, which was expressed through chromatic dissonances and marked lines; his works are dominated by “tears and drama”, the consequence of the violent experience of the war period. From 1940 to 1945 he was chosen as a war artist to depict the atrocities of the war, together with Moore and Nash. This is the period where The Devastations were created: gloomy and dazed visions of bombed English cities, where new forms emerge from the war subversion, the main object of his study. Many of these works are included in the present exhibition. In this period Sutherland enhances the interest in the study of human figure, reaching the highest point with the famous Crucifixion for St. Mattew’s Church in Northampton and several sketches, made between 1952 and 1961, for the tapestry representing Christ in Glory, in the Coventry Cathedral.
He received many awards after the post war period, and many exhibitions and events were displayed worldwide.
The commitment as a war artist distracted Sutherland from his first main focus: nature. He called himself John Constable’s spiritual heir. Sutherland’s aim is to reveal the truth that lays behind things, and painting was his means of denunciation.
He dedicated himself to the representation of a broken, reassembled, reinterpreted nature, which is deprived of its own individuality and represented as an endless, capricious being: Sutherland’s nature constantly lays behind its identity.
Sutherland’s landscape is made of vegetal and mineral forms which are turn into totemic symbols (the Standing Forms of the 50s) and darkly emerge from the bottom, in a psychoanalytic atmosphere. He refuses the virtuosities of traditional Naturalism and we get acquainted with nature’s real and cruel intentions, its absolute devastating power.
The painter warns us that nature’s forms, which should satisfy our hunger for beauty, are only mental reconstructions which are imposed on us by our need for certainty; reality is destabilizing, hard, mechanical in its being: almost a romantic “pleasurable terror”, a real threaten and not only a literary fear.
Sutherland catches and depicts the metaphor, looking into organic life, in which the mystery of existence is held: he analyses forms and recognizes their ambiguity and disturbing cruel essence, contrasting with colour’s intensity and sometimes its mildness. He manages to take out nature’s poetry and drama, giving his work a surreal, and sometimes, gloomy atmosphere.
Imaginary subjects and strange transformations are the main themes of the first Bestiary, which was realized in 1968; a second work will follow in 1979 and will be dedicated to Apollinaire’s poetry; so the suggestion that the author gets from the animal figures of the Romanesque sculpture is evident: the powerful models, terrestrial and mysterious, coming from a fantastic reality which is not divine; there are unitary symbols of experience and invention, nature and mind, a research which is scientifically majestic, even if its intent is merely poetic. Sutherland gives life to his own cosmogony, made of metamorphosis and forms; there are no distinction between the plant, the animal and the mineral kingdom, everything acquires the same primitive, ancient sense.
Sutherland came back to Wales, in 1967, with the director and great collector of his works Pier Paolo Ruggerini who was going to make a film about the artist (displayed at the beginning of the exhibition). At this point the author recognized the same old landscape which played an important part in his artistic education, and realized that the same landscape had still something to offer to him in terms of forms and colours.
A quotation of Ruskin summarizes Sutherland’s work: “So the nature’s exterior aspect is recreated to express man’s interiority, making use of a visionary approach which follows the effervescence of imagination and soul.”
The artist is also known for his portrays, where he emphasizes a “pietas” which is very close to the one expressed by Holbein: faces are studied as if they were nature’s elements, witnessing his constant quest for truth, in particular inner truth; whether it is a head or body movement, a wrinkling or a face expression, they reveal the pain and the sufferings of an entire life. He portrayed friends, of which he caught the psychology, the inner identity, but also big names and the powerful, such as the writer Somerset Maugham, the statesmen Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer and many noblemen. He portrayed them not to flatter them, but to depict on their faces the marks of a strenuous hunger for power, making use of inexorable brushes, to such an extent that Churchill’s wife destroyed the painting.
The exhibition venue on google maps: