THORN TREES 1945
Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980)
- 127 X 101.5 CM
- OIL ON CANVAS
- Accession number
A Neo-Romantic inspired by the pastoral subjects of Samuel Palmer, Graham Sutherland’s haunting paintings express a revul¬sion at the machine age and the oppressive forces of industriali¬sation, by tackling the rugged, difficult beauty of the countryside. For much of the 1930s he would attempt to convey the intellectual and emo¬tional essence of the Pembrokeshire landscape by means of dramatic shifts in light, unnaturalistic colouring and animal skulls. It is a bleak, primordial world in which man and nature are at odds with one another.
Sutherland had originally intended to study as a railway engi¬neer, and perhaps it was his aborted education in this field that led him to look with such a distempered eye on the march of progress. His real development as a painter dates from 1935, when he visited Pembrokeshire in the Welsh border country, and began a series of paintings based on landscape and natural forms. In ‘moments of vision’, he felt that things were taking on a life of their own, and undergoing a metamorphosis from a static, fixed shape, to an undefined, indetermi¬nate form. In his own words, he was fascinated by ‘the whole problem of the tensions produced by the power of growth’. In 1940, he was employed by the War Artists Advisory Committee, established by the art historian Kenneth Clark. The aim was to record Britain at war, from bomb damage in the East End of London to tin mining in Cornwall and steel works in Cardiff. Discouraged from painting dead bodies, Sutherland would paint the skeletal remains of burnt-out buildings as a metaphor for human damage. Thorn Trees was made at the end of the war and Sutherland has chosen a palette of intense, cold colours to reinforce the impression of a cruel and unapprehending world. It is one of the of the final paintings he executed before fleeing the sulphur¬ous realities of post-war Britain for the sunny environs of the South of France. The work was made after Canon Walter Hussey commis¬sioned the artist to paint an altarpiece for his church in Northampton. Sutherland chose to paint the Crucifixion, and Thorn Treeswas one of a number of paintings made shortly afterwards that focused on the crown of thorns pressed onto Christ’s head by the soldiers. The picture trans¬forms the trees into deadly weapons; the thorns become daggers and their razor-sharp edges glint like steel. Like a phoenix from the fire, this vicious aberration grows out of the barren soil, the mutant response to an evil world.
Landscape is one of the principle genres of Western art. In early paintings the landscape was a backdrop for the composition, but in the late 17th Century the appreciation of nature for its own sake began with the French and Dutch painters (from whom the term derived). Their treatment of the landscape differed: the French tried to evoke the classical landscape of ancient Greece and Rome in a highly stylised and artificial manner; the Dutch tried to paint the surrounding fields, woods and plains in a more realistic way. As a genre, landscape grew increasing popular, and by the 19th Century had moved away from a classical rendition to a more realistic view of the natural world. Two of the greatest British landscape artists of that time were John Constable and JMW Turner, whose works can be seen in the Tate collection (www.tate.org.uk). There can be no doubt that the evolution of landscape painting played a decisive role in the development of Modernism, culminating in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists . Since then its demise has often been predicted and with the rise of abstraction, landscape painting was thought to have degenerated into an amateur pursuit. However, landscape persisted in some form into high abstraction, and has been a recurrent a theme in most of the significant tendencies of the 20th Century. Now manifest in many media, landscape no longer addresses solely the depiction of topography, but encompasses issues of social, environmental and political concern.
Work of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is a tightly stretched piece of canvas, paper or a wooden panel. Painting involves a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's intellectual concerns effecting the content of a work.