Graham Sutherland OM

Head III


Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1143 × 883 mm
frame: 1384 × 1130 × 85 mm
Purchased 1953

Display caption

Insects and fossils merge in Sutherland’s Head III. The painter would later insist that these hybrid creatures were not intended to be threatening. At the time, however, the critic Herbert Read identified in Sutherland’s work ‘the now prevailing cosmic anxiety’.

Gallery label, October 2016

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Head III 1953


Oil on canvas 1143 x 883 (45 x 34 3/4)

Inscribed on back in black paint ‘TATE, HEAD III 1953’

Purchased from the artist (Knapping Fund) 1953

Paintings and Drawings by Graham Sutherland, Arts Council exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1953 (77)
Graham Sutherland: Gemälde und Zeichnung, British Council German tour Sept. 1954-March 1955, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, Sept.-Oct. 1954 and tour, Cologne, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Hamburg (46, repr.)
Arte d’oggi nei musei, 32nd Venice Biennale, May-Oct. 1964 (London, Tate Gallery 12);
Fifty Years of Modern Art, 1916-66, Cleveland Museum of Art, June-July 1966 (117, repr.)
IXème Biennale internationale d’art de Menton, Palais de l’Europe, Menton, July-Sept. 1972 (no number, repr.)
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 (59, repr. p.73)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (149, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (198, repr. in col. p.167)
Sutherland: une rétrospective, Musée Picasso, Antibes, June-Oct. 1998 (119)

‘Shafts from Apollo’s Bow - Build-up: Exhibition at the Tate Gallery’, Apollo, vol.58, no.341, July 1953, p.3
Tate Gallery Report 1953-4, London 1954, p.24
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.709-10
Edward B. Henning, Fifty Years of Modern Art, 1916-66, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art 1966, p.207, repr. pl.117
Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, p.12, pl.98 (col.)
John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.131, pl.101

Edward Sackville-West, Graham Sutherland, 2nd ed., Harmondsworth 1955, pl.31
Mark Batten, ‘Fashion in Art, III: Originality Can Be Something Other Than Stunts with Technique’, Artist, vol.52, no.3, Nov. 1956, p.70
Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.127
John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.259
Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, p.100, pl.57

The third and largest treatment of the subject, Head III 1953 reflects the development of Sutherland’s imagery in the early 1950s and, more markedly, the refinement of his style and technique. The two earlier versions of the composition were painted in 1952 and both were exhibited in the same year: one at the Curt Valentin Gallery, New York and the other in Sutherland’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale.[1] The inscription on the back of this one suggests that it was made specifically for his retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1953. The catalogue for that exhibition raised a confusion by listing two other works as Head and Head II which were, in fact, unconnected with this painting and its two earlier versions. Both dated 1951, they were developed from stones which reminded the artist of a human skull.[2]

Head III differs little from the two companion versions of the year before. All three show the same fictive, anthropomorphic creature, the nature of which seems to have been partly inspired by plant forms and partly by insects. In each it is set against a flat ground with striations painted in the upper half; these are slightly more elaborate in Head III. In that version the figure is rendered with the lighter, swifter brushwork that increasingly came to characterise Sutherland’s painting during the 1950s. It seems likely that this reflects the fact that the image was pre-conceived. On the unprimed face of a commercially prepared canvas, the artist painted a thin oil wash of dark brown and the figure was rendered with an economic use of white and pale brown brushmarks with touches of purple. The lower horizontal line divides the canvas into equal halves. Though pale, other fine white lines can be discerned running diagonally in several places and these can be related to the format of the canvas. One runs from the bottom left to the top right hand corner, thus crossing the horizontal at the exact centre of the field; two others run parallel to it, dividing the top left and bottom right hand quarters of the canvas; a fourth runs from the centre point to the bottom right hand corner. These appear to fix the position of the figure and can thus be seen to substitute for the squaring up grid which had been a prominent aspect of Sutherland’s paintings before that time. However, some pencil drawing was also used to plan the composition: this can be seen under the white vertical stripes and defining a rectangle which frames the head. The inversion of the canvas and the setting of a translucent, almost ghostly figure against a thin, flat ground relates the painting to Francis Bacon’s work, in which vertical striations had appeared as a kind of veil as early as 1949 and as a backdrop to a figure in Study for Nude, 1951 (private collection).[3] The rigidity of Sutherland’s lines, however, relates most closely to a series of male portraits by Bacon that post-date Head III, for example Man in Blue V 1954 (Galleria d’Arte Galatea, Turin).[4]

The effect of Sutherland’s light touch in this and subsequent works is to make the form less sculptural than in such earlier paintings as Standing Forms II, 1952 (Tate Gallery T03113). However, the reading of the figure remains equally ambiguous. The artist described them as ‘monuments and presences ... [which] catch the taste - the quality - the essence of the presence of the human figure’.[5] In later years he would insist that these ‘presences’ were benign,[6] refuting the identifications of a sinister aspect. Nevertheless, David Mellor has recently described such figures as ‘triffid-like’ indications of the artist’s ‘Catholic miserabilism’.[7] The combination in Head III of the figure’s aggressive morphology with the pathos of its spatial isolation and implicit alienation may be thought to contribute to this duality of meaning. Both aspects, however, may be related to the existential subtext which Herbert Read identified in Sutherland’s work when he wrote, in 1953, that ‘the growing fearsomeness of the symbols reflects the now prevailing cosmic anxiety’.[8] A similar, though distinct, artistic context was provided the year before Read’s essay when the second Head was illustrated in Michel Tapié’s Un Art Autre (Paris 1952) alongside the work of Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Soulages, Jackson Pollock and Germaine Richier.[9]

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Head 1952, whereabouts unknown, repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.126a; Head 1952, former collection of Alfred Hecht, repr. ibid., pl.126b
[2] Head, 1951, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, repr. ibid., pl.117c; Head II, 1951, private collection, repr. ibid., pl.117d
[3] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, pl.32
[4] Repr. ibid., p.89, pl.85 (col.)
[5] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, Listener, 6 Sept. 1951, republished in Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, Julian Andrews (ed.), Picton and Geneva 1982, p.72
[6] ‘Landscape and Figures: Conversation with Andrew Forge’, Listener, 26 July 1962, republished in Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, Julian Andrews (ed.), Picton and Geneva 1982, p.80
[7] David Mellor, ‘The Body and the Land’ in David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, London 1987, p.72
[8] Hebert Read, ‘Introduction’ in Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1953, unpag.
[9] Michel Tapié, Un Art autre où il s’agit de nouveaux dévidages du réel, Paris 1952, unpag.

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