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Back to school

This week spring term began in our local adult learning centre and I signed up for the art course on British modernism. I like our teacher immensely. She has become a friend, coming over for dinner with her husband, a jazz drummer. I could scarcely believe she was 76. With her blonde hair, contemporary sense of dress and fine facial features I would have put her down in her early fifties. She has both enthusiasm and knowledge and somehow keeps talking for the allotted two hours of the lesson.

Our main subject this week was the artist Graham Sutherland. Think Graham Sutherland and you inevitably think of his portrait of Winston Churchill which so incensed Clementine that she destroyed it.

I don’t know why as it’s a fine portrait.

Some say that as Sutherland made no secret of his Labour support it was deliberately unflattering.

Sutherland was adapt at portrature – his study of Somerset Maugham is very good.

Portraiture could be a very good earner as two of the best Anthony van Dyck and Thomas Gainsborough discovered but it constrains the creative process which is why Habsburg court painter Gustav Klimt abandoned it.

David Hockney, for example, does not do commissions, preferring – like Lucian Freud – to paint his friends and people around them.

Like most British artists of the twentieth century Sutherland (1903-1980) is hard to classify in “isms”.

He did not gain admission to the prestigious Slade, very much the school to attend in the early twenty century, and his parents wanted him to be an engineer.

He proved a capable engraver and then a war painter.

He also was a romantic landscapist and the thorns in many of his paintings are emblematic of his conversion to Catholicism.

His real love though was surrealism and he greatly admired Samuel Palmer and Paul Nash. He was one of the prime movers in the Great Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936. Although associated with Pembroke landscapes, he spent some time – like many a painter in the South of France – dwelling in Menton. There he befriended Picasso.

In art, we all have our likes and dislikes . I find Frand Auerbach’s impasto technique unappealing and much prefer Matisse to Picasso.

Ken Howard swears by Degas whilst an international dealer I know regards Marc Chagall as the greatest colourist of the twentieth century.

I have never wanted to hang a Sutherland on my wall, nor a Francis Bacon but a Matisse of a room with a geometric balcony and table with some fruit looking out on an azure sea would be my ultimate joy.

Nonetheless Sutherland is a considerable force and figure in British art.

For most of his life New York was the epicentre of the art world but he flew the flag for the UK and probably now deserves a big retrospective.

About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts