|Graham Sutherland, Dark Hill - Landscape with Hedges and Fields, 1940. Swindon Museum and Art Gallery © Estate of Graham Sutherland|
In his excellent book, 'A History of Ancient Britain,' historian Neil Oliver writes:
"All of Britain was a work in progress as nature set about reclaiming the land. The period of hundreds of thousands of years known to archaeologists as the Palaeolithic – Lower, Middle and Upper – was over. The remote world of the mammoth-hunters of Paviland, even the lives and times of the Creswell artists and the butchers of Cheddar Gorge belonged to the past. The ice of the Big Freeze had drawn a line that separates them from us, then from now."
This line in our history, this schism carved through time in much the same way as valleys were carved and gouged by ice from rock, is a place I find myself observing when I look at some of Sutherland’s haunted landscapes. They are silent spaces, from which it seems humankind is quite estranged; banished even. In some, it's as if Man has yet to appear, as if the world is part of a parallel universe, similar in some respects, but altogether different. There are, as well as those landscapes which seem divorced from knowable time (from history), landscapes from the recent past; ruined prospects of towns wracked by war. And while the source of this ruination is Man himself, the sense which Sutherland creates is one in which Man again ceases to exist. It's almost as if through both types of landscape (those we might - very loosley- describe as rural on the one hand, urban/industrial on the other), Sutherland is reminding us that for the unimaginably greater part of its existence, the world did not know us; that for the equally 'impossible' span of time that stretches ahead, the world will have no need of us either.
This sense of oblivion haunts Sutherland's landscapes; Earth’s indifference towards us - in the grand scheme of things - permeates almost every canvas and drawing, no matter how small. They each seem to echo the wonderful words of the 17th century writer Sir Thomas Browne, when he writes in 'Urn Burial.'
"We whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations. And being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh Pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment."
On some of Sutherland's drawings, the artist has drawn a grid of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. Grids like these would often be used when scaling drawings up to full-size works, and perhaps that is what the artist intended them for. When I see them however, I see them not as something detached from the work itself - a mere tool for reproduction - but rather an integral part of the work. It's as if the artist is trying either to order the chaos which he's rendered on the page (and which he's no doubt observed in the real world), or do battle with Man's certain oblivion and relative obscurity, imposing his mark on the landscape; his dominion over the world.
|A Farmhouse in Wales 1940. Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales|
|Welsh Landscape with Yellow Lane 1939-40. Private Collection, London|
In the exhibition's first few paintings, we find these same desolate landscapes, replete with standing stones (for example, in 'Sun Setting Between Hills' below) such as those found at ancient sites throughout the country.
|Sun Setting Between Hills 1937. Private Collection|
|Interlocking Tree Form 1943. The Whitworth Gallery, University of Manchester|
|Fallen Lift Shaft 1941. Junior Common Room Art Collection, New College.|
The exhibition is titled 'An Unfinished World' and whilst reading Richard Dawkins' book 'The Ancestor's Tale,' I found a quote, which for me encapulsates what that title means. The world, with or without Man, is always unfinished. Dawkins writes:
"The second connected temptation is the vanity of the present: of seeing the past as aimed at our own time, as though the characters in history’s play had nothing better to do with their lives than fore-shadow us."
In other words, we are not the end, just as we weren't the beginning. And it's this conceit which Browne cautions against in his meditation on death discussed above. Sutherland's landscapes are for me, the equivalent of trying to imagine one's own non-existence in a world which is always, as Neil Oliver writes, ‘a work in progress,’ one in which nature will one day set about reclaiming from Man.
One might think it's possible therefore to view Sutherland's paintings as a warning against this conceit. But to do this is in itself a kind of conceit. The fact is, we are just another part of the landscape. The yellow road was there before us, and after us the yellow road rolls on. Sutherland's paintings are not warnings, but statements of fact.
And while this might sound somewhat depressing, another quote from Dawkins (again from 'The Ancestor's Tale') might just lift our spirits:
"As physicists have pointed out, it is no accident that we see stars in our sky, for stars are a necessary part of any universe capable of generating us. Again, this does not imply that stars exist in order to make us. It is just that without stars there would be no atoms heavier than lithium in the periodic table, and a chemistry of only three elements is too impoverished to support life. Seeing is the kind of activity that can go on only in the kind of universe where what you see is stars."
|Landscape 1969. Harry Moore-Gwyn (Moore-Gwyn Fine Art)|
|Twisting Roads 1976. Private Collection.|
Perhaps therefore, in Sutherland's work, humankind is in evidence after all.