Graham Sutherland OM



Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on board
Support: 908 × 1016 mm
frame: 1168 × 1472 × 83 mm
Purchased 1947

Display caption

This is one of a series made by Sutherland in preparation for a larger version commissioned for a church in Northampton. The sources on which he drew indicate the way he saw the theme in terms of past paintings, the individual and recent historical events. His primary reference point was Matthias Grunewald’s famous Issenhiem altarpiece (illustrated to the left), in which Christ is shown anguished and blistered; Sutherland drew himself slung from the ceiling. He also referred to recently released photographs of dead and starving Concentration Camp victims.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Crucifixion 1946


Oil on board 908 x 1219 (35 3/4 x 48)

Purchased from the artist through the Lefevre Gallery, London (Knapping Fund) 1947

Preliminary Paintings for the Northampton Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland also Bonnard and his French Contemporaries, Lefevre Gallery, London, July 1947 (no number)
Modern Church Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York tour 1948-50, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., Nov.-Dec. 1948, Baltimore Museum of Art, Jan. 1949, Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans, Feb., San Francisco Museum of Art, March-April, Art Center School, Los Angeles, May-June, Springfield Art Museum, Mo. June-July, J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Ky, Oct.-Nov., Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Nov.-Dec., University of Tennessee, Nashville, Ky, Jan. 1950, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass., Feb.-March, University of Minnesota, Minn., March-April, South Bend Art Association, Ind., May, Fort Worth Art Association, Texas, June 1950 (no catalogue)
Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Mass. 1953, Seattle Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, Vancouver Art Gallery, Akron Art Institute, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Lowe Gallery, Coral Gables, Fa., Society of the Four Arts Plaza, Palm Beach, Feb. 1954, Phillips Gallery, Washington D.C. (9)
Contemporary Religious Art: Adelaide Festival of the Arts, National Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 1962 (19)
Sutherland, Galleria Civica, Turin, Oct.-Nov. 1965 (54, repr.)
Loan to Manchester City Art Gallery March 1971-July 1973
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (57, repr. p.71)

Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, pp.14-18
Fr Conrad Pepler O.P., ‘Gloomy Art Distorts the Crucifixion: Unrelieved Grief is Almost a Pagan Conception’, Catholic Herald, 12 June 1953
Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pp.29-35, 39, 41, 49, 75, repr. pl.72a (as ‘Study for the Northampton “Crucifixion”’)
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.707-8
Andre Revai, ‘Sutherland in Turin’, Burlington Magazine, vol.107, no.753, Dec. 1965, p.649 (as Study for Northampton Crucifixion)
John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, pp.24-6, repr. p.105, no.72a (as Study for the Northampton “Crucifixion”)
‘London Day by Day: Blank Canvas’, Daily Telegraph, 18 Feb. 1980, p.16
Rosalind Thuiller, Graham Sutherland: Inspirations, Guildford 1982, pp.58-62
Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, p.151

Wieland Schmied, Zeichen das Glaubens Geist der Avantgarde: Religiöse Tendenzen in der Kunst der 20 Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1980, p.291
‘Graham Sutherland’, Sunday Times, 24 Feb. 1980, p.38
Corps crucifiés, exh. cat., Musée Picasso, Paris 1992, p.122

On 18 April 1944 the painter Keith Vaughan recorded in his diary a conversation with Graham Sutherland:

I asked him if he thought it was still possible to paint the great myths; Prometheus, for instance, or a Crucifixion or an Agony in the Garden ... He said there was no real reason why they should not be painted if one could feel strongly enough about them. ... It is essential that one can believe in the reality of the subject ... As for a crucifixion he did not know whether there was anyone who could handle it. ‘It is an embarrassing situation’, he said, ‘to say the least of it, to contemplate a man nailed to a piece of wood in the presence of his friends’.[1]

Sutherland’s reflections are significant because at that time he was already considering the painted Crucifixion for the church of St Matthew, Northampton, to which the Tate’s Crucifixion is related. An earlier Tate Gallery catalogue has noted that Walter Hussey, then the vicar of St Matthew’s, associated the genesis of the idea with the unveiling in the church of Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child on 19 February 1944.[2] Moore had been approached in late 1942 with the idea of producing such a sculpture to mark the church’s fiftieth anniversary (Benjamin Britten was to compose a cantata) and, missing the dead-line, had carved it through the winter of 1943-4. Hussey asked Moore to suggest the best artist to produce a painting to hang in the south transept opposite his Madonna; Sutherland was recommended and invited to the unveiling. According to Hussey’s retrospective account, he initially proposed to the artist ‘an “Agony in the Garden”, because it could give some scope for landscape and there seemed to be a relationship between Sutherland’s work and El Greco’s’.[3] Sutherland said he had recently copied El Greco’s ‘Agony’ and added, ‘Of course, one’s ambition would be to do a Crucifixion of a significant size’.[4]

The progress of the apparently informal commission seems to have been slow. A collection box was set up next to Moore’s sculpture - then the focus of national attention and the subject of impassioned debate - to raise funds for ‘the commissioning of works of art for the church’.[5] Sutherland was still vague when he wrote after the sculpture’s unveiling: ‘I should welcome the opportunity to see what I can do. To do a religious painting of significant size has always been a wish at the back of my mind.’[6] The reiteration of the importance to the artist of a grand scale may reflect one of the attractions that the commission held for him. Originally known as an etcher, Sutherland had only started to establish his oil painting style before the war and almost all of his work for the War Artists Advisory Committee was on paper. He had not had the opportunity, therefore, to produce monumental paintings.

As he was still working for the WAAC in 1944 - at that time he was producing such pictures of Woolwich Arsenal as Furnaces (Tate Gallery N05743) - he was alarmed at the success of Hussey’s fund-raising, writing on 14 May: ‘the fund seems to be growing very quickly! I hope not too much so, as the war is indeed taking its toll of my time! It only seems the other day we were with you in Northampton and talking about a remote possibility’.[7] At the beginning of October he was still enthusiastic but too busy to begin work: ‘it doesn’t look as if I can undertake anything until the Summer and I hope this doesn’t throw your plans out. I’m still as keen as ever - in fact more so, and I shall be grateful for your continued understanding of the time problem.’[8]

When work on the commission actually began is unclear and appears to have been so to the artist. It had not been determined in May 1945 when Sutherland declared his continued absorption in ‘the idea of the Crucifixion’.[9] He wrote: ‘I would still like to try it; if my powers prove insufficient - and I can assure you that of all critics I shall be the most careful and severe - then, perhaps, I could fall back on the less difficult and less complex “Way of the Cross” or Agony in the Garden.’ It has been recorded that he began ‘systematic work’ on the commission in April 1946,[10] though a more contemporary account described that month as the moment when ‘the idea of the “Crucifixion” first began to take shape in his mind.[11] It was reported that Sutherland, using a garage close to his home in Kent as a studio, had to ‘sling himself up with cords ... to discover what arms would look like in so unnatural a position, and how a stomach would be drawn inwards when subjected to so humiliating an ordeal’.[12] The interlocking forms of the cross were, similarly, said to have derived from packing cases piled up. Coming so soon after the event, this unlikely account presumably derived from the artist himself. Though he was supposed to have painted a ‘Deposition’ first and experimented with the inclusion of two thieves,[13] work towards the commission was fairly advanced by June 1946, when a mention in the magazine Good Housekeeping alarmed Hussey who had not yet informed his Parochial Church Council.[14] Apologising for the article, the artist revealed uncertainty in the status of the commission: ‘I had no idea that the [Church] Council didn’t know that you had commissioned me to do this work. (Perhaps you haven’t!).’[15]

At least two large scale studies were made and these were recorded in a studio photograph taken by Felix Man prior to the completion of the main work.[16] The one on the right is about the same size and proportions as the Tate’s painting, though sketchier; formerly in the British Council Collection, it now belongs to the Vatican.[17] The other (present whereabouts unknown) is taller and thinner - approximately seven feet by three feet six inches - and is likely to be the work referred to by Hussey (despite the discrepancy in the proportions): ‘Sutherland invited me down to Kent to see what he had been doing, including the large (approximately 8 x 5 ft) final sketch ... I was very impressed by the many sketches that we saw, and said so; but I couldn’t help feeling some reservation about the large final sketch, and I think I showed this.’[18] Sutherland visited St Matthew’s in August,[19] and an undated photograph taken in the church of him and Hussey in a group of people alongside the final study may indicate that he took it to Northampton with him.[20] However, it is more likely that he took the study when he delivered the final painting and that the photograph was taken at that time. The artist contrasted Kenneth Clark’s enthusiastic response to photographs of the final study with the vicar’s unease: ‘I value your approval beyond words ... I have been up to Northampton. The Rev. Hussey is worried about the Hemlock plants (!) I name those forms thus.’[21] The reference seems to be to an array of thin, vertical elements around the figure of Christ which appear to have been painted out of the full-size version. The final study included a skull beneath Christ’s feet - a traditional symbol for Golgotha - which was also omitted.

The unveiling of the Northampton painting was planned for 21 September - the feast day of the church’s patron, St Matthew - but Sutherland felt he was unlikely to meet it and blamed the delay on the shortage of materials. Following his August visit to Northampton, he wrote to Hussey:

I am less optimistic about getting the painting done by September 21 ... nothing, with the exception of colours, brushes, or paper can be obtained without a priority permit. Canvas (a very small quantity) appears in the shops every six months and each customer is rationed by the shopkeeper to about one yard. In the war time days I had a permit through the WAAC. This has now been wound up ... But I have managed to get a man in the Board of Trade ... to get me some Sundeala Board (this is the stuff on which I did the Crucifixion you saw, and it is very permanent and rigid) on the grounds that I am doing some work for the “Britain can make it” Exhibition. Highly black market![22]

Though Ronald Alley has stated that ‘the final picture was begun in June 1946 and finished in the autumn’,[23] this correspondence makes it clear that Sutherland could not have started work much before the end of August. He was nonetheless optimistic, suggesting on 19 August that he would ‘go ahead with the painting as if I were aiming at the 21st Sept. and hope to have it done. I may get the board and stretcher done in about 10 days to a fortnight’.[24] Hussey recalled that he showed photographs of the last study to the Parochial Church Council on 3 September, ‘and asked them if they would agree to the artist going ahead with the final work’;[25] their unexpected enthusiasm was bolstered by letters of recommendation from Clark and Newton. In the end, the painting was delivered to Northampton on 5 November and Sutherland worked on it in situ. The principal adjustment was probably to the background colour which appears to have been predominantly royal blue but was overpainted with the purple that now dominates the composition. The artist hinted at such a change a few years later: ‘I would have liked to paint the Crucifixion against a blue sky ... in benign circumstances: blue skies, green grass, Crucifixion[s] under warmth - and blue skies are, in a sense, more powerfully horrifying. The colour which I did in fact use - a bluish royal purple, traditionally a death colour - was partly dictated by certain factors already in the church.’[26] A small gouache in the artist’s sketchbooks of the Crucifixion with a rich purple surround and orange foreground may contradict this speculation, but the similarity of its composition to the final painting’s suggests that it too was made towards the end of the project.[27]

The painting was kept hidden, but the P.C.C. were given a private viewing and it may be that Felix Man’s photograph showing the final study in the church originates from that occasion.[28] If that was the case, the artist must have taken the study to Northampton for comparison; that the group of people are looking out of the photograph to the left, into the transept where the Crucifixion hangs, would support this supposition. The unveiling was performed by Eric Maclagan, the former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, on 16 November. The occasion, attended by the Clarks, Henry and Irina Moore and John and Myfanwy Piper, was recorded in Picture Post.[29] The painting received little of the criticism that had initially been directed at Moore’s sculpture and Hussey would speculate that ‘this was partly because it was the second modern work, but more because the “distortions” in the Crucifixion had a more obvious psychological justification’.[30]

In preparation for the commission, Sutherland produced a series of paintings of thorns, the curving, barbed forms of which served as symbols of human cruelty and suffering. It has been proposed that the Tate’s painting is one of the various sketches, or studies, for the final Crucifixion on which he worked during the summer of 1946, but it may be that it should be seen as independent. It was purchased from an exhibition of ‘preliminary paintings for the crucifixion’ and an earlier catalogue has identified it as the ‘most highly finished’ of the group.[31] Although the artist had told the Gallery in 1957 that it was ‘the last in the series’,[32] it was described in the catalogue as ‘still a long way from the Northampton painting’ and, it was intimated, was neither the last nor the penultimate study as photographs of the Crucifixion in Sutherland’s studio show the two preparatory works already cited. In replying to Clark’s praise of the tall, thin study, Sutherland wrote: ‘I ... hope that you will equally like the final version ... I want to make [it] ... more square i.e. wider arms and more space on either side of the cross. I still have a hankering for the smaller “sketch”.’[33] That the Tate’s work is horizontal may suggest that it was the smaller study referred to, but the apostrophised term ‘sketch’ suggests that the reference was to the less finished study seen in the photograph of the studio.

The precise status of the Tate’s Crucifixion is thus uncertain. On the one hand, though clearly animated, it may be associated with the later studies in which, according to Benedict Nicolson’s account of the composition’s evolution, the figure of Christ was ‘slumped to one side, more anatomical, more emaciated, closer to the ascetic Christ of the thirteenth century than to Grünewald’.[34] On the other hand, though originally exhibited as a study for the final composition, it seems unlikely that a preparatory work would be more finished than the sketchy Vatican painting which it would presumably precede. In addition, the Tate work differs significantly from the final version and the two main studies both formally and in mood. The painting in Northampton hangs so that the viewer’s eye is level with Christ’s feet and the downward angle of the arms may be designed to allow for the consequent foreshortening. The horizontality of the arms in the Tate painting may therefore reflect its independence from that planned setting. It has neither the fictive rope barrier dividing the crucifixion from the viewer nor the orange ground and, while Christ appears to be dead in the Northampton painting, here He is seen to twist to the left and writhe in agony. To suggest that the Tate Crucifixion was painted after the Northampton work would not necessarily be inconsistent with Sutherland’s statement that it was ‘the last of the series I did in connection with the Crucifixion for St Matthew’s’.[35] Such a hypothesis is supported by a further Crucifixion that is dated 1947 (private collection).[36] Alley has described this as one of ‘at least eight oil studies of the Crucifixion of 1946-7’;[37] another was bequeathed by Walter Hussey to Pallant House, Chichester.[38] At the outset, Sutherland had told Hussey that he could execute the commission for ‘£300 or £350, because he could sell the sketches that he did for it’.[39] That the 1947 Lefevre Gallery exhibition, in which these various studies were shown, was the realisation of that plan seems to be confirmed by the artist’s statement at the time that he had ‘been so rushed trying to get the studies for the N’hampton work to a stage fit for exhibition’.[40]

Like the larger version, the Tate’s Crucifixion was painted on Sundeala board (of pressed wood fibre), parts of which are still visible, indicating the lack of a ground. The pigments are in different media: while the uppermost layer is largely oil colour, the underlying deep purple is soluble in water, as are certain areas of the top surface, in particular the vermilion and violet but also the green, yellow and black.[41] There are areas of very dry paint - most especially the orange that pours from Christ’s hands. In 1992 it was observed that the blue pigment around the figure seemed to have faded in contrast to an earlier black and white photograph of the painting.[42] The design appears to have been drawn in black paint directly onto the board and some of the lines - those of the loin cloth, for instance - were reinstated after painting, though less so than in most of Sutherland’s painting. The areas of bare board indicate that the design was established first and the purple painted within it. The structural black lines and orange from the wounds were painted over the purple and the upper layer of violet was added around them. The cursory, thorn-like marks that define the screaming face contrast with this pre-planning and with the impasto of the white between the figure’s ribs.

The Northampton Crucifixion was seen as remarkable for its depiction of human suffering, and that aspect is made all the more powerful here by the anguished contortions of Christ’s face, the shape of the arms which are arching upwards in pain and the body which similarly twists outwards. Sutherland had told Hussey at an early stage that he saw two contrasting ways of addressing the subject. ‘On the one hand’, he wrote,

a treatment detached, formal, hieratic and impersonal. On the other, a (for want of better words) psychological or psychic and real (not necessarily naturalistic) treatment. I confess I incline towards the latter with all humility and with great temerity. In a way it’s much more difficult. Symbolism in the sense that Gill used it in Westminster Cathedral is easier and to my mind inclined to be too soothing. That is not to say that the form of composition shouldn’t have great formality.[43]

In this polarisation Sutherland set himself opposite Moore: whereas he saw the Crucifixion in terms of individual experience, the sculptor had stated that his rendering of the Madonna and Child was based on the belief that it ‘should have an austerity and a nobility, and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) which is missing in the everyday Mother and Child idea’.[44] Sutherland’s rejection of the ‘soothing’ formalism of Eric Gill’s Stations of the Cross, 1914-18 in Westminster Cathedral is equally distinct from Moore’s approach and may be seen to reflect contemporary events.[45] The contrast has prompted the suggestion that the space of St Matthew’s might be seen as a psychoanalytic ‘dialectical field ... constructed between Sutherland’s Crucifixion (representing the death principle) and Moore’s Madonna and Child (representing the libido)’ and, as such, as reflecting a duality in contemporary artistic and theological debates.[46]

The principal precedent for Sutherland’s chosen treatment of the subject was Matthias Grünewald’s Issenheim altarpiece in Colmar, in which Christ is shown as pock-marked and abject. In particular, Sutherland borrowed the anguished upward curl of Christ’s hands for his painting and, in the Northampton version, Christ’s body is blistered as in the Grünewald. The Issenheim altarpiece was the best known depiction of the Crucifixion as an individual human event and its Gothic emotion may be contrasted with Moore’s debt to early Renaissance Italian sculpture, specifically to Arnolfo di Cambio’s Virgin and Child (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence).[47] After seeing a photograph of the final study for the Northampton painting, Kenneth Clark sent Sutherland photographs of various Duecento Italian crucifixions, perhaps in the hope of luring him away from the German influence. ‘The contrast between Coppo, Giunta and Cimabue may interest you’, he suggested, ‘you may get something out of the Giotto, especially the hand’.[48] Sutherland painted the final version immediately afterwards and seems to have been little influenced by Clark’s suggestions. Nevertheless, in his submission to St Matthew’s Parochial Church Council, Clark compared the final study to these artists even though he had introduced Sutherland to them after it was painted. ‘Just as Moore’s Madonna ... was obviously in the tradition of Romanesque sculpture’, he wrote, ‘so Sutherland’s Crucifixion is the successor to the Crucifixion of Grünewald and the early Italians, Giunta Pisano and Coppo di Marcovaldo. These artists represent religious art at its most intense and sincere moment’. [49] It is notable in this regard that, in contrast to the last two studies and the final painting, the figure in the Tate’s Crucifixion is twisted to the left in an echo of Cimabue’s Santa Croce Crucifix, 1272-4 (Museo dell’opera di Santa Croce).[50]

The Issenheim crucifixion had been reused earlier by Picasso and it is likely that Sutherland would have seen his 1932 drawings after Grünewald in the French periodical Minotaure in 1933.[51] However, an equal and more telling debt was to Picasso’s Guernica (Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid) and the related pictures which he would have seen when they were shown in London in 1938.[52] A reminder of the internationally renowned painting based on the destruction of the Basque town had come at the end of 1945 in the catalogue to the Picasso, Matisse exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in which it was reproduced along with a study for the Spaniard’s on-going Charnel House.[53] These two major paintings served to define a genre of humanitarian pictorial statements on human cruelty and suffering into which Sutherland’s Crucifixion would be placed. Guernica, in particular, had established a visual vocabulary for death and destruction which Sutherland enlisted, most clearly here in the gaping scream of Christ’s mouth. In the manner of its definition, the face, contorted in agony, is almost continuous with the crown of thorns and both owe a clear debt to the spiky linearity of paintings related to Guernica, such as The Weeping Woman, 1937 (Tate Gallery T05010), then in the collection of Roland Penrose.

Picasso’s drawings after Grünewald and his painted Crucifixion, 1930 (Musée Picasso)[54] have been associated with a revival of the genre in Britain and Europe.[55] This was part of a wider resurgence of religious art which was encouraged by the demand for new churches following the widespread destruction of the war. An expectation of such a need probably influenced wartime discussions of modern church patronage of the arts, for example the essay ‘The Church and the Artist’ by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester.[56] Like Bell, Hussey would become a major advocate of the church’s support for the arts and, as well as the pieces for St Matthew’s, as Dean of Chichester Cathedral (1955-77) his later commissions included a Noli me Tangere by Sutherland, an altar screen by John Piper, a stained-glass window by Marc Chagall and music by such composers as Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein. Sutherland would benefit from the renewed interest in ecclesiastical art. Shortly after painting the Northampton Crucifixion he produced The Deposition, 1946 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)[57] in which he continued the theme of human suffering and death. Further religious subjects and church commissions would follow, including another Crucifixion, 1963 (Church of St Aiden, East Acton) and, most famously, the enormous tapestry of Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph for Coventry Cathedral, the highlight of the architectural reconstruction of Britain consecrated in May 1962.

At his presentation of Sutherland’s study to his Parochial Church Council, Hussey quoted Hans Feibush’s call for ‘churches [to] be decorated by such men as Georges Rouault or Graham Sutherland, in whom there is fire’.[58] Rouault, who provided an important precedent for modern treatments of religious themes, had a major exhibition in London while Sutherland was developing his Crucifixion.[59] Before the war he had produced a series of paintings of Christ on the Cross, one of which had been shown at the Mayor Gallery in 1939,[60] and further examples of modern crucifixions were offered by artists as diverse as Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon and Renato Guttoso, whose Crocefissione, 1940-1 has been read as a symbolic representation of Fascist oppression.[61] There were, however, examples closer to home.

At the unveiling, Herbert Read is reported to have reflected, disapprovingly, on the influence of Francis Bacon on the Crucifixion. During the period that he was working on the commission Sutherland was especially close to Bacon, who had at that time returned to the theme of the crucifixion which he had addressed in the early 1930s. Their mutual friend, Roy de Maistre - an early influence on Bacon and, like Sutherland, an artist associated with Roman Catholicism - also painted crucifixions in the 1940s. During the war he produced two versions of a 1932 composition which focused on Christ’s head and torso.[62] The angular, linear manner employed to define the body is comparable to the musculature in Sutherland’s treatments, though the static pose and drooping head is nearer to the Northampton panel than the Tate’s more tortured depiction.

When Sutherland first considered this theme he would already have been aware of the panels that Bacon was painting which would be entitled Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1943-4 (Tate Gallery N06171). The two artists were in contact while the latter was working on his three biomorphic figures. Whether they were associated with the crucifixion at that stage is not clear but, in any case, Sutherland would have known of his friend’s earlier treatments of the theme. In his copy of Herbert Read’s seminal Art Now (1933),[63] the reproduction of Bacon’s Crucifixion, 1933 (private collection) [64] was the most thumbed page.[65] In addition, the appearance of both it and Crucifixion, 1933 (private collection)[66] on the art market during the years 1945-6 must have refocused attention on them. The screaming Christ in the Tate Crucifixion may be related to the scream which would predominate in Bacon’s work following its use in Three Studies and other related works. Sutherland’s technique at this time, particularly in the Northampton Crucifixion, is also comparable to the handling of Bacon’s contemporary painting. Rather than the Three Studies, the low barrier at the front of the Northampton Crucifixion and even more prominent in the final study seems to derive from Bacon’s Painting 1946 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).[67] Sutherland knew this work well because in the summer of 1946, in Bacon’s absence, he had fixed the magenta pastel on it in preparation for its despatch to the UNESCO Exposition internationale d’art moderne, at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris.[68] As well as the barrier device, one might discern echoes between the cruciform carcass in Bacon’s Painting and Sutherland’s crucifixions.

The coincidence of the exhibition of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in April 1945 with the opening of the Concentration Camps has led to their retrospective reading as depictions of human cruelty in horrified reaction to the Holocaust. Sutherland sought to establish such an association for his Crucifixion pictures, recalling that photographs of the Camps provided a visual source. He wrote to Edwin Mullins in 1970:

I remember receiving a black-covered ... book dealing with the camps. It was a kind of funeral book. In it were the most terrible photographs of Belsen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald ... in them many of the tortured bodies looked like figures deposed from crosses. The whole idea of the depiction of Christ crucified became much more real to me ... and it seemed to be possible to do this subject again.[69]

The publication referred to, K-Z, was a booklet issued in German at the end of the war by the victorious allies to show the German people the atrocities of the camps.[70] Of the horrifying images of the survivors’ starved bodies and of corpses, often piled high, none can be directly related to Sutherland’s depiction of Christ. A photograph of German troops loading a body onto the back of a truck may, however, have provided a source for the hollowed stomach and skeletal legs that are especially prominent in the Tate’s Crucifixion.[71] The artist’s debt to these photographs is, however, more readily apparent in some earlier ideas for the Crucifixion in which the emaciated figure of Christ is shown hanging with his arms stretched upwards.[72] He employed a similarly naturalistic depiction of death in the Deposition of the same year and, though none of them are directly comparable to any of the K-Z images, it seems highly unlikely that Sutherland would have conceived these works without their influence. Earlier (probably in 1950), he had listed a number of similar sources and suggested that their influence was more generalised and on the depiction of the corpse. In a commentary on a draft of Robert Melville’s monograph on the artist, Sutherland wrote:

Re. the whole thing of the Crucifixion. The Buchenwald thing also was tremendously in my mind at the time. The stains of blood on walls after firing parties; the reek; the rot; the pathos of the helpless dead body; ‘the dust drinks up blood’. & ‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me’ of Aeschylus - The photographs in A-Z [sic.] the publication of the American Office of War Information on the outrage, the photographs of hangings in Minotaur and the affidavit photos from Russia.[73]

Rather than simply a visual source, however, it seems more useful to follow the artist’s lead and see the graphic revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust as a powerful stimulus to the revival of the Crucifixion motif. Hussey described the painting in cathartic terms, as ‘disturbing and purging. For generations the subject of the Crucifixion has been wrapped in cotton-wool ... Sutherland has deliberately unwrapped a great deal of that cotton-wool covering to bring home with tremendous power the effect of human sin and the cost of man’s redemption’.[74] It was this realism, modified by the stylised purple background and the railing, that the vicar saw as helping ‘the combination of timeless symbolism and contemporary immediacy’.[75] It was read in similar terms by such critics as Benedict Nicolson, who wrote that it

mirrors the emotional climate of the time and place in which it was conceived; and it is as well to remember that Sutherland worked out his version of the subject in a bombed out island at the end of the cruelest war in history, when innocent men were undergoing mental and physical torments comparable in terror and intensity to Christ’s death.[76]

Coming after six years of conflict, the realisation of the Holocaust undermined the certainties and aspirations of pre-war culture, leaving the practitioners of different disciplines the task of formulating new languages for new themes. Sutherland’s treatment was surely informed by his Roman Catholicism and in 1951 he explained that he was attracted to the crucifixion theme by its ‘duality’:

It is the most tragic of themes yet inherent in it is the promise of salvation. It is the symbol of the precarious balanced moment, the hair’s breadth between black and white. It is that moment when the sky seems superbly blue - and when one feels that it is only blue in that superb way because at any moment it could be black - there is the other side of the mirror - and on that point of balance one may fall into great gloom or rise to great happiness.[77]

With his series of crucifixions Sutherland, in common with many artists at that time, revived a traditional motif to present a cathartic demonstration of contemporary experience and to offer the hope of redemption. In so doing he fell in with a strand of Christian existentialism that was an important feature of post-war culture in western Europe. In France, the Catholic church developed a concept of ‘personalism’ through the work of such writers as Emmanuel Mounier in a bid to forge links with the individualism of the increasingly popular existentialism. Similarly, the nature of Sutherland’s painting has been associated with a movement among Anglican modernisers to revise the Church of England’s outlook and incorporate modern psychology.[78] Sutherland’s treatment of sacrifice in terms of Christ’s personal suffering exemplifies such ideas.

Chris Stephens
March 1998

[1] Keith Vaughan, Journals 1939-1977, ed. Alan Ross, London 1989, p.55
[2] Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.707
[3] Walter Hussey, Patron of Art: The Revival of a Great Tradition Among Modern Artists, London 1985, p.50
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Letter to Hussey, nd, quoted in Hussey 1985, p.50
[7] Ibid., p.51
[8] Letter to Hussey, 3 Oct. 1944, quoted ibid., p.52
[9] Letter to Hussey, 30 May 1945, quoted ibid.
[10] Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982
[11] Benedict Nicolson, ‘Graham Sutherland’s “Crucifixion”’, Magazine of Art, vol.40, no.7, Nov. 1947, p.280
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] John Pudney, Good Housekeeping, May 1946
[15] Letter to Hussey, 5 June 1946, quoted in Hussey 1985, p.53
[16] Repr. Melville 1950, pl.69
[17] Study for Crucifixion, 1946, Collezione di arte religiosa moderna, Monumenti, Musei e Gallerie Ponitificie, Vatican, repr. Cooper 1961, pl.72b
[18] Hussey 1985, p.56
[19] Letter to Kenneth Clark, 18 Aug. 1946, Tate Gallery Archive 8812.1.3.3147
[20] Photograph of Sutherland, Hussey and other unidentified people by Felix Man, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, Walter Hussey file
[21] Letter to Kenneth Clark, 18 Aug. 1946
[22] Letter to Hussey, 19 Aug. 1946, quoted ibid., pp.55-6
[23] Alley 1982, p.111
[24] Letter to Hussey, 19 Aug. 1946, quoted Hussey 1985, p.56
[25] Ibid.
[26] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, Listener, 6 Sept. 1951, republished in Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, ed. Julian Andrews, Picton and Geneva 1982, p.73
[27] Sutherland sketchbook, TGA 812.13, [p.9]
[28] See note 20
[29] John Piper, ‘Religion Inspires Modern Artist’, Picture Post, vol.33, no.12, 21 Dec. 1946, pp.13-15
[30] Hussey 1985, p.63
[31] Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.707
[32] Letter to Tate Gallery, 15 Nov. 1957, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[33] Letter to Clark, 18 Aug. 1946
[34] Nicolson 1947, p.280
[35] Letter to Tate Gallery, 15 Nov. 1957, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[36] Repr. Alley 1982, p.113,
[37] Ibid.
[38] Repr. The Waletr Hussey Collection, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester nd, unpaginated, no.73
[39] Hussey 1985, p.50
[40] Letter to Nicolette Gray, 20 July 1947, on loan to Tate Gallery Archive
[41] Tate Gallery conservation files
[42] Ibid.
[43] Letter to Hussey, 3 Oct. 1944, Hussey 1985, p.52
[44] Henry Moore, ‘Statement’ in Church of St Matthew, Northampton 1893-1943, Northampton 1943, republished in ‘Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child (Northampton)’, Architectural Review, vol.95, May 1944, p.189
[45] Repr. Judith Collins, Eric Gill: The Sculpture, London 1998, pp.90-104
[46] Patrik Anderson, ‘The Dialectical Cross: Graham Sutherland, Herbert Read and The Modern Churchman’, Collapse: The View from Here, no.1: Ideologies of Britishness in Post-War Art and Culture, Vancouver 1995, p.49
[47] Repr. Philip James (ed.), Henry Moore on Sculpture, London 1966, pl.4
[48] Clark, letter to Sutherland, nd [early Aug. 1946]
[49] Clark, letter to Hussey, c.1 Sept. 1946, quoted in Hussey 1985, p.56
[50] Repr.***
[51] ‘Crucifixions: Dessins de Picasso d’après la Crucifixion de Grünewald, Minotaure, vol.1, no.1, June 1933, pp.31-2
[52] Picasso’s Guernica with 67 Preparatory Paintings, Sketches and Studies, New Burlington Galleries, London, Oct. 1938, Oriel College Lecture Room, Oxford, Nov.-Dec., Leeds City Art Gallery, Dec., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Dec. 1938-Jan. 1939, ?a motor showroom, Victoria St., Manchester, Feb. 1939
[53] Exhibition of Paintings by Picasso and Matisse, Victoria and Albert Museum, Dec. 1945
[54] Repr. Corps Crucifiés, exh. cat., Musée Picasso, Paris 1992, pp.8-9 (col.)
[55] Corps Crucifiés, exh. cat., Musée Picasso, Paris 1992
[56] Rt Rev. George Bell, ‘The Church and the Artist’, Studio, vol.124, no.594, Sept. 1942, pp.81-92
[57] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.73
[58] Hans Feibusch, Mural Painting, London 1946, p.29, quoted in Hussey 1985, p.54
[59] Braque, Rouault, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1946
[60] Georges Rouault, Mayor Gallery, London, June-July 1939 (15)
[61] Renato Guttoso, Crocefissione, 1940-1, Galleria d’arte moderna e contemporanea di Roma, repr. Corps Crucifiés, Paris 1992, p.45 (col.)
[62] Roy de Maistre, Crucifixion, 1932-45, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, repr. Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: The English Years 1930-68 (col.); Crucifixion, 1942-4, Leicester City Art Gallery, repr. David Mellor, ‘Francis Bacon: Affinities, Contexts and the British Visual Tradition’ in Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.), Francis Bacon: Figurabile, exh. cat., Venice 1993, p.98
[63] Herbert Read, Art Now, London 1933
[64] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonée and Documentation, London 1964, [p.161], no.6
[65] Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, p.87
[66] Repr. Alley 1964, p.29, no.8 (col.)
[67] Repr. Alley 1964, p.41, no.19 (col.)
[68] Bacon, letter to Sutherland, 20 Aug. [1946], Picton Castle Trust:79, TGA TAM 67/2
[69] Sutherland, letter to Edwin Mullins in Telegraph Magazine, no.359, 10 Sept. 1971, republished in Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.153
[70] K-Z: Bildbericht aus fünf Konzentrationslager, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces, [1945]
[71] Ibid., [p.10]
[72] e.g. Two Studies for a Crucifixion, 1946 (Collezione di Arte Religiosa Moderna, Monumenti, Musei e Gallerie Pontifice, Vatican), repr. Cooper 1961, pl.76
[73] Manuscript ‘Notes on Robert’s text’, nd, Sutherland archive. copy TGA TAM 67/16
[74] Walter Hussey, ‘A Churchman Discusses Art in the Church’, Studio, vol.138, no.678, Sept. 1949, p.95
[75] Ibid.
[76] Benedict Nicolson, ‘Graham Sutherland’s “Crucifixion”’, Magazine of Art, vol.40, no.7, Nov. 1947, pp.279-80
[77] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, Listener, vol.46, no.1175, 6 Sept. 1951, p.378
[78] Patrik Anderson, ‘The Dialectical Cross: Graham Sutherland, Herbert Read and The Modern Churchman’, Collapse: The View from Here, no.1: Ideologies of Britishness in Post-War Art and Culture, Vancouver 1995

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