Graham Sutherland OM

Horned Forms


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on board
Support: 813 × 641 mm
frame: 1012 × 848 × 65 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1966

Display caption

This threatening creature was based on a root which Sutherland found in Kent and which he took back to the studio. Through his characteristic ‘paraphrasing’ of its form it has metamorphosed into an imagined animal as suggested by the work's title. The air of threat and strangeness is further enhanced by the bright, acidic colours of the landscape it seems to dominate.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Horned Forms 1944


Oil, wax and resin on hardboard 812 x 644 (32 x 25 3/8)

Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1966

Purchased from the artist by Wilfred Evill by 1945 and bequeathed to Miss Honor Frost 1963, from whom purchased by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1966

Quelques contemporains anglais, British Council, 28 Avenue des Champs Elysées, Paris 1945 (41, dated 1940)
Graham Sutherland 1924-51: A Retrospective Selection, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, April-May 1951 (10)
Graham Sutherland, Musée nationale d’art moderne, Paris, Nov.-Dec. 1952, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Jan.-Feb. 1953, Kunsthaus, Zurich, March-April (9)
Paintings and Drawings by Graham Sutherland, Arts Council exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1953 (10, as Horned Form)
Wilfred Evill Memorial Exhibition, Brighton Art Gallery, June-Aug. 1965 (261, as Horned Roots in Landscape)
Graham Sutherland, Galleria civica d’arte moderna, Turin, Oct.-Nov. 1965 (36, repr. p.103)
Graham Sutherland, Kunsthalle, Basel, Feb.-March 1966 (26)
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 (56, repr. in col. p.74)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (117, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (159, repr. p.140)
Loan to The Graham Sutherland Gallery, Picton castle, Haverfordwest March-Oct. 1985
L’Art en Europe: Les Annees décisives 1945-1953, Musee d’art moderne de Saint-Etienne, Dec. 1987- Feb.1988 (no number, repr. p.94);
Sutherland: une rétrospective, Musée Picasso, Antibes, June-Oct. 1998 (52, repr. in col. p.35)

Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.38, pl.59
Tate Gallery Report 1966-7, London 1967, pp.40-1
Richard Morphet, British Painting 1910-45, London 1967, p.[17], pl.31
David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, pp.100-101 n.113
Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, p.33, repr. p.82, pl.39
John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.100, repr. p.101, no.65 (col.)
Graham Reynolds, ‘Feeling the Countryside’, Times Literary Supplement, no.4058, 9 Jan. 1981, p.26
Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, p.114
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists, London 1988, p.119
Catherine Vasseur, ‘La nature inquiétante de Graham Sutherland’, L’Oeil, no.498, July-Aug. 1998, p.83

‘Britain Now: Chimeras at Buchholz’, Art News, vol.45, no.1, March 1946, p.50 (col., as Horned Tree Form)
Andrew Revai, Graham Sutherland, The Masters, no.63, London 1966, pl.3 (col.)
Enrico Crispolti, Correnti contemporanee della pittura inglese, Milan 1967, pl.XV (col.)
Norman Reid, The Tate Gallery, London 1969, p.157 (col.)
Giorgio Soavi, Protagonisti: Giacometti, Sutherland, de Chirico, Milan 1969, p.177
Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.46 (col.)
John Russell Taylor, ‘Graham Sutherland’, Connoisseur, vol.210, no.843, May 1982, p.25

Despite the heavy commitment demanded by his status as an official war artist, Sutherland continued to make personal pictures derived from natural sources throughout the war. Developing the motif of anthropomorphic organic forms that had emerged in his work of the late 1930s, he produced a number of paintings and drawings - such as Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods, 1940 (Tate Gallery N05139) and Blasted Oak, 1941 (private collection)[1] - that would come to be seen as major works. Like those and the Thorn Tree paintings which it anticipated, Horned Forms may be seen as a symbolic comment on the war in its use of vibrant colour and aggressive morphologies.

This is one of two versions of the same composition. The other, which was made later, is larger and more ‘finished’ and was bought by the Museum of Modern Art, New York from Sutherland’s 1946 Buchholz Gallery exhibition.[2] The artist later wrote that the Tate’s version ‘was certainly not intended as a sketch’ and believed that he had painted a second version because the original which had been intended for the New York exhibition was sold earlier to Wilfred Evill, his solicitor and a prominent collector.[3] Correspondence with Curt Valentin of the Buchholz Gallery indicates that the exhibition was originally scheduled for autumn 1944 and the delay may explain how the painting came to be sold beforehand.[4] Sutherland’s dealings with Evill were particularly frequent during 1945 as he was in the process of purchasing The White House, Trottiscliffe, Kent, where he had been a tenant for eight years, with the help of a mortgage from his patron Sir Kenneth Clark.

The production of more than one version of a single composition was typical of Sutherland’s practice, though it is unusual to find two such ‘finished’ works. His normal working method was to make relatively naturalistic studies before the motif and to develop the image from these, through a series of intermediary stages to the final work. There are, for example, four successive renderings of Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods, 1940.[5] According to the artist, Horned Forms derived from a large root which he found in Kent and took back to his studio;[6] it did not, therefore, originate from a trip to Pembrokeshire in August 1944 as has been proposed by his biographer.[7] Indeed, a sketchbook drawing of the root alongside a study for Green Tree Form suggests that he might have had it some years earlier.[8] A photograph of the artist with the root reveals that it was considerably altered in the painting,[9] the pointed ‘horns’ having evolved from simple, splintered root stumps. Four published drawings relating to the work demonstrate how this bestial rendering of the original object was present at an early stage.[10] Three show the root in the same position as in the paintings and with the stumps similarly curved and sharpened to their fang-like final treatment. The fourth is more whimsical, with a bird perching on the root which is orientated the other way around. A more complete study, in the Tate Gallery’s collection (T01396), is squared-up as if for transfer, perhaps identifying it as the final stage before painting.

Sutherland’s paraphrasing of the organic objet trouvé and his use of colours invest the work with an air of anxiety and aggression. While the shape and stance of the root recall a predatory animal, its grey pallor, albeit modified by the purple at the tips, gives it a bone-like appearance and introduces the idea of death. This has been compared to the beasts in Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, c.1943-4 (Tate Gallery N06171) and a similar parallel has been drawn between the use of two tones of orange in the sky of Horned Forms and the backgrounds of Bacon’s panels.[11] That the two artists were in contact at the moment at which the triptych was made is demonstrated by a letter to Sutherland from Bacon in Petersfield, where the Three Studies seem to have been painted.[12]

Like Three Studies, the presence of an aggressive embodiment of death within a poisonous yellow landscape may have been seen to relate to the destruction of the war, the end of which was foreseeable in 1944. A threatening aspect to Nature had been a recurrent theme in his work before the war, but it became particularly pronounced in 1945 with his series of paintings based on thorns, such as Thorn Tree, 1945-6 (British Council).[13] He associated these images with his preparation for his Northampton Crucifixion, describing them as ‘a kind of “stand-in” for a Crucifixion or a crucified head’,[14] and their function as symbols of human cruelty and suffering may be thought to apply also to Horned Forms. The two natural sources - thorns and horns - had been united as illustrations of nature’s violent side by William Blake, of whom Sutherland was a great admirer, in the lines ‘The modest Rose puts forth a thorn | The humble Sheep a threat’ning horn’.[15]

The latent violence of Sutherland’s work of the period and his association with Bacon facilitated what might be seen as the recasting of his work. In the late 1930s and during the war he had been held up as the progenitor of a romantic revival in British painting, and his obsession with natural sources and the Celtic periphery were used to position him within an indigenous cultural tradition that included both poets and painters. Such works as this, however, and in particular the Northampton Crucifixion and related studies (e.g. Tate Gallery N05774), associated Sutherland with the existential tone that dominated much cultural debate following the war. The shift in this perception can be demonstrated by the differences between the introductions to his exhibitions in New York in 1946 and 1948. In the former, his paintings were discussed in terms of a melancholy pastoral, as reflections of ‘the tragic idyll of contemporary England’,[16] while two years later his introduction into landscape of an ‘unconscious sense of tragedy ... A world lacerated by wars, pustulent with concentration camps’ was seen as the opposite of ‘idyllic painting’.[17] However, if Raymond Mortimer read Sutherland’s post-war paintings as ‘symbols of human suffering and cruelty’, other critics have seen them as celebratory. Robert Melville, for instance, described Sutherland’s organic forms as ‘breaking free from their grave clothes and celebrating ... the return of Eurydice from the underworld’.[18] They thus become symbols of resurrection - a likely theme for a Roman Catholic artist contemplating the theme of the Crucifixion at the end of the war.

The materials used for Horned Forms appear to be somewhat unusual. It is painted on the smooth face of an irregularly cut 1/8 inch (3mm) hardboard panel. Though this was possibly sized, there was no ground before the paint was applied in several layers to give a brushmarked, scumbled surface. The opaque paint is moderately rich and largely in an oil medium but several areas appear to have a final glaze or some thin retouching which is possibly wax or resin. There is some crackling, and associated cleavage between paint layers was secured in 1973.[19] Squaring up is visible towards the right hand edge and it is notable that this was drawn over, and incised into, the wet paint so that it must be seen as a part of the final composition.

A deliberate lack of ‘finish’ is typical of Sutherland’s style and helps to establish a particular idea of the painting and the process of its making. The failure to achieve perfection was seen by him as an essential ingredient in a work of art. Keith Vaughan noted a conversation in which Sutherland and he agreed that

in all great paintings there was always one ... point, a flaw if you like, which had not been resolved, and which was in fact essential to the strength and beauty of the whole work. The flaw could not be repaired without the whole painting being damaged. It was as if a painting were trying to approach a complete equilibrium but could never quite reach it; if it did it would disintegrate.[20]

Such apparent hesitation and lack of resolution was seen as indicative of the existential struggle of the artist and caused Sutherland to be described as ‘the Cézanne of metamorphosis ... a virtuoso of inconfidence, bringing the restlessness and anxiety of man into a searching relationship with the unease of the rest of the created word’.[21] Thus, in a period when Cézanne was re-perceived as the epitome of the tortured artist, Sutherland’s style, as much as his content, was seen to contribute to the evocation of individual anxiety.

Chris Stephens
September 1998

[1] Repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.33
[2] Graham Sutherland, Buchholz Gallery, New York, Feb.-March 1946 (2, repr.)
[3] Letter to Tate Gallery, 8 June 1967, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[4] Curt Valentin papers, Museum of Modern Art archive, New York, information in Inga Forslund, MOMA letter to Tate Gallery, 2 April 1967, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[5] Repr. Cooper 1961, pls.22-23c
[6] Sutherland, letter to the Tate Gallery, 8 June 1967, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[7] Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, p.114
[8] Sutherland sketchbook, TGA 812.4, [p.1]
[9] Repr. Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Buchholz Gallery, New York 1946
[10] Repr. Cooper 1961, pls.58a-d
[11] David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore 1975, p.100-101 n.113
[12] Bacon to Sutherland, 8 Feb. 1943, copy TGA 67/1
[13] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.81
[14] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, Listener, 6 Sept. 1951, republished in Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, Julian Andrews (ed.), Picton and Geneva 1982, p.71
[15] William Blake, The Lilly, from Songs of Experience (1794) in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, David V. Erdman (ed.), New York 1982, p.25
[16] Edward Sackville-West, ‘Introduction’, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat. Buchholz Gallery, New York 1946
[17] Raymond Mortimer, ‘Introduction’, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Buchholz gallery, New York 1948
[18] Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, [p.18]
[19] Tate Gallery conservation files
[20] Keith Vaughan, Journals 1939-77, ed. Alan Ross, London 1989
[21] Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, [p.14]

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