Graham Sutherland OM

Standing Forms II


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1800 × 1410 mm
Presented by Mrs Kathleen Sutherland, the artist's widow 1980

Display caption

These forms probably derived from plant roots or other vegetable matter. They have been redefined by the artist to suggest human presences. They represent Sutherland’s fascination with the tension between opposites: beauty and ugliness, friendliness and menace. This seems to emanate from the ambiguity of the figures themselves and the strident colouring of the painting.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Standing Forms II 1952


Oil on canvas 1800 x 1410 (70 7/8 x 55 1/2)

Inscribed on back of canvas in black oil paint ‘STANDING FORMS 1952 | (II) | OIL’ t.l.

Presented by Mrs Kathleen Sutherland, the artist’s widow 1980

Graham Sutherland, British Council tour, Musée nationales d’art moderne, Paris, Nov.-Dec. 1952 (64, first version repr.), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Jan. 1953 (60), Kunsthaus, Zurich, March-April 1953 (60)
Paintings and Drawings by Graham Sutherland, Arts Council exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1953 (72, repr. pl.14)
Graham Sutherland: Gemälde und Zeichnung, British Council German tour Sept. 1954-March 1955, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, Sept.-Oct. 1954 (40, repr.) and tour, Cologne, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Hamburg (40)
Documenta: Kunst des XX Jahrhunderts, Museum Fredericianum, Kassel, July-Sept. 1955 (608)
Britisk Kunst 1900-1955, Kunstforeningen, Copenhagen, April 1956 (89)
British Nåtidskunst, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, May-June 1959 (89)
Graham Sutherland, Museum and Art Gallery, Belfast, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (22)
Graham Sutherland, Galleria civica d’arte moderna, Turin, Oct.-Nov. 1965 (80, repr.), Kunsthalle, Basel, Feb.-March 1966 (70)
Graham Sutherland, Haus der Kunst, Munich, March-May 1967, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, June-July, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, Aug.-Sept., Wallraft-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Oct.-Nov. 1967 (37)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (149, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (198, repr. in col. p.166)
L’Art en Europe: Les annees décisives 1945-1953, Musee d’art moderne de Saint-Etienne, Dec. 1987- Feb.1988 (no number, repr. in col. p.95);
Des Modernes aux Avant-Gardes, Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain, Nice, June-Oct. 1997 (no number, repr. in col. [p.9])

S. Feinstein, ‘On Sutherland’s Stage’, Art Digest, vol.27, no.12, 15 March 1953, p.18, repr.
Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, pp.35-7
Tate Gallery Aquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, pp.209-10
Thierry Chabanne, ‘Le calvaire de Picasso’, Beaux-Arts, Paris, no.106, Nov. 1992, p.87, repr. p.86 (col.)

Enrico Crispolti, L’Informale: Storia e poetica, vol.1: Origine e primi, Assisi and Rome 1971, pl.282a
Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.94 (col.)
Rosalind Thuiller, Graham Sutherland: Inspirations, Guildford 1982, p.71, pl.65

This is the second of two versions of the same composition. The first - Standing Forms I, 1952 (Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid)[1] - was first shown at the 1952 Venice Biennale, where Sutherland represented Britain, immediately after which it was sent to New York. As a consequence, the artist made this version for the European tour that followed his Biennale exhibition. The two paintings are the same size and very similar, though the later one is slightly simplified.

These types of organic ‘standing forms’ had predominated in Sutherland’s painting since 1949, when they first appeared in such works as Two Standing Forms against a Palisade, 1949 (Vancouver Art Gallery).[2] They typified his distinctive brand of aggressive organicism and featured in major pieces like Standing Form against a Hedge, 1950 (Arts Council Collection)[3] and the Festival of Britain mural The Origins of the Land, 1951 (Tate Gallery N06085). The central ‘figure’ of that monumental painting was reworked for the similarly positioned feature in Standing Forms II.

Edward Sackville-West described the ‘standing form’ pictures as the third phase of Sutherland’s post-war painting, following on from the thorn tree paintings and the studies of palm branches.[4] An earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry has said that, in keeping with Sutherland’s established working practice, the anthropomorphs in Standing Forms II were derived from natural objet trouvés: ‘bits of trees and plants he had picked up in the South of France on the beach and elsewhere.’[5] Studies reveal some of the sources or, at least, the process of their transformation. The middle ‘figure’ derived from the root depicted in Articulated Forms, 1948 (private collection),[6] and the ‘head’ of that on the left relates closely to Study for Thorn Head, 1949 (private collection).[7] While that ‘figure’ is more like the other ‘standing forms’ in its generalised organicism and evocation of seed pods, chrysalises and insects, that on the right is strikingly anthropomorphic, and surprisingly sexual, in the clear definition of buttocks, legs, a spine and a rib cage.

Sackville-West wrote that these forms, as several of the titles indicate, were suggested to the artist by the sight of figures set against a hedge in bright sunlight.[8] The artist explained that they were substitutes for humans employed as a means of capturing a sense of mystery and the essence of a person:

The forms are based on the principles of organic growth ... to me they are monuments and presences. But why use these forms instead of human figures? Because ... I find it necessary to catch the taste - the quality - the essence of the presence of the human figure: the mysterious immediacy of a figure standing in a room or against a hedge in its shadow, its awareness, its regard, as if one had never seen it before - by a substitution ... I find these organic forms best for my purpose ... they give me a sense of the shock of surprise which direct evocation could not possibly do.[9]

The result of this strategy was to invest these human presences with sinister overtones. David Mellor has associated Sutherland’s work with a more general image of a threatening Nature and, in that regard, described the standing forms as ‘triffid-like’, in a reference to John Wyndham’s near-contemporary science fiction account of a devouring plant life.[10] The paintings may also be associated with a negative quality identified in Sutherland’s work by Geoffrey Grigson a few years earlier. In 1948, attacking the painter’s obsession with disintegration and devastation, Grigson pointed up what he saw as a series of paradoxes in his approach. He refuted Sackville-West’s statement that Sutherland was ‘trying “to portray with the maximum ... of life - those loved objects (stones, hedges, road shapes...)”’, arguing that ‘those objects, which Sutherland seems to hate as much as love, are all precisely dead’ and that his ‘abstractions from his dead nature seem unnatural’.[11] Contrasting them with the work of Blake and Palmer, he complained that ‘Sutherland’s [drawings] leave out the object (or substitute it for a paradigm), and include only a little more than the ... self brooding around death ... Sutherland’s darknesses are not shadow sleeping upon substance ... but ... darknesses of threat, and of damage’.[12]

Such a dark, brooding quality certainly pervades many of the works and Mellor has associated it with ‘Sutherland’s Catholic miserabilism - that is to say an attitude and an art predicated on man’s state of vileness’, which he equated with the nihilism of Francis Bacon.[13] The two painters had been close friends since c.1943 and comparisons may usefully be drawn between Sutherland’s organic presences and the creatures in Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1943-4 (Tate Gallery N06171). Such a juxtaposition was recently suggested by the inclusion of the first version of Standing Forms II, alongside the Three Studies, in an exhibition that focussed on Picasso’s Crucifixion, 1930 and that genre in modern visual culture.[14] If compared to a similar structure in Bacon’s Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 (Stedlijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven),[15] the area of bare canvas in Standing Forms II may be read as a cross. The figures thus come to represent the attendants upon the crucifixion, a subject which, through Bacon’s triptych, had taken on a threatening aspect. A few years earlier Sutherland’s major, large-scale Crucifixion (1946) for St Matthew’s Church, Northampton,[16] and a series of related paintings - including the Tate’s Crucifixion, 1946 (N05774) - had played a part in the genre’s reinstatement within modern art practice.

John Hayes has similarly identified in this painting a ‘sense of degradation’ that he associated with Bacon.[17] Specifically, in describing Sutherland’s right hand figure as ‘reminiscent of an écorché’, he invoked the flayed carcass of Bacon’s Painting 1946 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)[18] along with other such works by Rembrandt and, more contemporaneously, Chaim Soutine. The coincidence in a single figure of this anatomical exposure with the erotically charged emphasis on the buttocks and narrowly tapering ‘skirt’ adds an especially disturbing nuance to the painting. Hints at such a transgressive sexuality had been made in certain pre-war works in which tree forms recalled the disfigured bodies of Hans Bellmer, such as Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods, 1940 (Tate Gallery N05139) and Association of Oaks, 1940 (private collection),[19] which Hayes juxtaposed with Standing Forms II.

It is not only the content that reveals Sutherland’s proximity to Bacon at that time, but the style and technique as well. In this and later works, Sutherland adopted Bacon’s practice of painting on the unprimed side of a commercially prepared canvas, the white ground thus covering the back. The face of the support, which is left bare in the area of the ‘cross’, was covered with animal glue size which has cracked and shown a tendency to cleave. The back of the canvas is soiled and one grey stain has penetrated to the front on the left-hand side of the ‘cross’. The surface was squared up with white chalk which was fixed by the sizing, the figures were cursorily sketched in black oil and the white and purple were added to give form; the colouring links Standing Forms II with The Origins of the Land. During painting the canvas was moved upwards on the stretcher by approximately 10 cm (4 ins.); it was re-stretched in 1980 at which time surface accretions above the left hand figure were removed and the area consolidated.[20] The paint is dry and there are isolated spots of impasto. In a method typical of Sutherland’s work after the war, the yellow background was painted in layers of tonal variations, a lemon base being overlaid with more orange and green tones. There has been some cracking, especially in the thicker areas of paint, and cleavage has led to minute losses. The grass of the foreground was painted with short slashes of white, black, purple and some orange paint in a manner similar to that used by Bacon in such paintings as Figure in a Landscape, 1945 (Tate Gallery N05941). The overall effect is a sense of bright sunlight, emphasised by the long shadows in the top left hand quarter, which, Hayes felt, emphasised the atmosphere of degradation.[21]

Despite the suggested readings, the interpretation and nature of the ‘standing figures’ is unclear. Sackville-West said they were ‘to all intents and purposes [Sutherland’s] first “still life” pictures’. He described them variously as ‘seed pods bursting or budding, sections of organic substance fitted to handles of bone or box’ and as ‘spruce and tidy, as ornaments should be ... delicate and therefore unsuitable for exposure to natural vicissitude’. However, he concluded that it was ‘most useful to think of them as hieratic emblems, such as could be carried in procession, after being taken down from their stands and fitted on to staffs’.[22] This description has ritualistic overtones, suggesting the procession of crucifixes and the figures of saints on Christian feast days, ancient Roman triumphs, or impaled bodies of vanquished armies and, as such, foreshadowed later readings of the standing forms as totems and fetishes.[23] The elevation of the figures on stands encourages this latter interpretation and may be related to a small number of comparable sculptures which Sutherland made at around the same time. The totemic potential of sculpture became a major theme amongst British artists during the 1950s and vertically piled forms appeared in the work of Henry Moore and younger sculptors like William Turnbull. Douglas Cooper reported that Sutherland had produced six Standing Figure sculptures, but only one - from 1952 - survived and was cast in an edition of three bronzes in 1959.[24]

These various readings notwithstanding, Sutherland retrospectively wished to see the standing forms as benign presences, telling an interviewer in 1962 that he hoped

they were friendly, in the sense that when you see a man standing in a garden - in that curious limbo of sunshine and shadow - you are extremely, delicately, conscious that there is a face there. For a moment, you hardly think there is someone there. Then you think that you do recognize the features. But it is this half lost quality which I think tends to make them menacing. Of course many people say that my standing forms are menacing. I don’t feel that: I mean, they are only menacing in a sense that a lot of forms in nature are very peculiar, and happen to be very unfamiliar. One does not see them the whole time. I think they look more menacing than in fact they are.[25]

Chris Stephens
September 1998

[1] Repr. Douglas Cooper. The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.120
[2] Repr. ibid., pl.103a
[3] Repr. ibid., pl.VIII (col.)
[4] Edward Sackville-West, Graham Sutherland, Harmondsworth 1943, rev. ed. 1955, p.11
[5] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, p.209
[6] Repr. Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, pl.50 (col.)
[7] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.111b.
[8] Sackville-West 1955, p.11
[9] ‘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
[10] 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
[11] Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Authentic and False in the New “Romanticism”’, Horizon, vol.7, no.29, March 1948, pp.206-7
[12] Ibid., p.207
[13] Mellor 1987, p.72
[14] Corps Crucifiés, Musée Picasso, Paris 1992; Pablo Picasso, Crucifixion, 1930, Musée Picasso, Paris, repr. ibid., pp.8-9
[15] Repr. ibid., p.46 (col.)
[16] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.75
[17] John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.123
[18] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.41, pl.19 (col.)
[19] Repr. Hayes 1980, p.122, pl.91
[20] Tate Gallery conservation files
[21] Hayes 1980, p.123
[22] Sackville-West 1955, pp.13-14
[23] Cooper 1961, p.47
[24] Repr. ibid., fig.8
[25] ‘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

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