Wednesday 1 February 2012

Graham Sutherland's Images of Wartime

Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse

Modern Art Oxford has a great exhibition of works on paper by Graham Sutherland on at the moment. I was particularly struck by the series he made while acting as an official WWII artist in the early 1940s…

The show is curated by last year’s Turner Prize nominee, George Shaw, and features over 80 rarely seen works drawn from both public and private collections. Alongside the war pieces, the focus is on Sutherland’s landscape works, and features paintings and drawings of the Welsh landscape from the 1930s, as well as later works by the artist, made towards the end of his life, that depict Pembrokeshire in the 1970s.

Devastation, 1940: A House on the Welsh Border

Devastation 1941: City, Twisted Girders

Sutherland’s images of war reflect life on the home front, particularly the devastation wreaked by bombs in the East End of London and elsewhere. As with his landscape images, these works are empty of human life, and instead display the twisted, broken remains of buildings and homes. All are rendered in a gloomy palette lightened only by the Sutherland’s repetitive use of a bright yellow-orange, which in this context appears to symbolise fire and destruction more than any kind of hope.

Devastation, 1941: East End, Wrecked Public House

Devastation, 1941: City Panorama, 1941

It is interesting to reflect on the similarities between Shaw’s paintings and the works by Sutherland he has chosen to display here. While Shaw’s focus is on the urban landscape, specifically his childhood home on the Tile Estate in Coventry, his works are similarly devoid of people, and he, like Sutherland, injects his scenes with a kind of brooding significance, which belies the often ordinary moments presented.

Four Studies of Bomb Damage, 1941. All images © Estate of Graham Sutherland

Shaw has made a great selection of Sutherland’s work for Modern Art Oxford, and it is a show that certainly rewards a visit to see the artworks ‘in the flesh’, where the colour, texture and display of the images (many of the works are housed in distinctive frames) can be fully admired.

Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World is on show at Modern Art Oxford until March 18. More info is at

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