British modernism is in fashion and I guess it is a reaction to the legacy of the YBAs. In other words, Britain has a great tradition of painters that seems to have been forgotten by what Julian Stallabrass has called the High-Art-Lite of the 90s. Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) is particularly interesting because he applies the new urban languages of modernism and avant-garde to landscape painting as if decanting it from its formal aspects only to leave the essential which, in a way, is the core of what landscape painting is. His views of Pembrokeshire, south Wales, are one of the high points of British modernism.
This show contains about 20 pieces from this period, mainly paintings but also watercolours and studies that conflate a surrealist language without abandoning the gradations of hues typical of the British watercolourist. The result is a lyrical adaptation of the Surreal impossible to get in the continent which allows him to depict both mystery and morphology without trying too hard.
From the 1960s onwards, Sutherland’s style becomes slicker and the colours more phosphorescent; yet the works feel slightly too calculated – particularly his fecund, tendrilly compositions, arranged across the canvas like a sort of elaborate stage-set. The way he uses black and detail inside a magma of shapeless forms is just amazing. Indeed, Sutherland clearly had a flair for this sort of lyrical surrealism turned into a collapse of Lowry and Hitchings. The earliest works here are his etchings from the 1920s – romantic views of rural Kent – in which his technique is so exquisitely detailed that every sliver of hay, every dappled leaf, seems minutely discernable. It’s fascinating to see the forms becoming progressively more distended and fantastic over time, more overtly – exultantly – strange. I love this show.
Until November 18
at Crane Kalman Gallery