From Darkness into Light, the present exhibition downstairs at Penlee House, is an intriguing look at Graham Sutherland’s work as a war artist during the 1940’s. It foregrounds the drawings made underground at Geevor as well as sketches of steel works and opencast mines, and makes connections with the constant themes of Sutherland’s art, his interest in natural forms often containing subtle metaphorical reference to human lives and activities. Sutherland makes this plain when he speaks of “…a strange interchangeability of meaning – a correspondence between the forms of the earth, nature forms that is, and animal and human forms and even machine forms.” The inclusion of sketchbook pages and preparatory work gives the viewer sight of and, perhaps, insight into the artist’s thinking and the often unrecognised development process from idea to finished artwork.
The two World Wars cut across the progress of modernism in art during the first half of the 20th century in a quite surprising way. Instead of art for art’s sake and exploration of self-initiated projects, artists were commissioned to record a wide variety of aspects of the war effort with the recognition that their works would be exhibited to the widest possible audience and be relatively easily understood by all the people who came to see them. The gulf between avant-garde art and conventional taste had to be reconciled without the loss of either artistic integrity or audience comprehension. The appointment of Kenneth Clark in 1939 as Director of the War Artists Advisory Committee was probably instrumental in this reconciliation succeeding during the second war, as he was certainly able to connect the styles and interests of particular artists to the theme of Britain at War.
It’s therefore interesting, while viewing how Graham Sutherland interpreted that brief in this exhibition, to bring to mind the work of Henry Moore who also retained modernist style while producing accessible images of Londoners sheltering from the blitz in tube stations. On the other hand a contrast could be made with Stanley Spencer’s more conventional, but equally aesthetically powerful, figurative compositions of ship builders on the Clyde. In all of these examples the strength of the artist’s imagination is reflected in the power of the images produced, and Sutherland’s work at Penlee House certainly demonstrates the use of imagination to produce accessible images that contain emotional power.
For the work displayed in this exhibition Sutherland was sent to record and explore the processes of heavy industry, concentrating on the extraction of raw materials and their transformation into designed components of the technology of war. He travelled around the country to explore and record these processes: to Penzance and then Pendeen in order to capture miners at Geevor at work; to Cardiff and Swansea for the transformation of ore to iron and steel components; to Woolwich Arsenal to see those components used in the construction of armaments.
As if to mirror the process of transformation from rock to ore to metal to technical component, the sketches, drawings, preparatory works and finished paintings in this exhibition enlighten the viewer as to the way Sutherland transformed glimpses of men and machinery and sparks of ideas into developed images. It’s also fascinating to see how he blends depiction with vision and style to produce what might be considered a compromise, but not one which undermines the integrity of any of those component parts. We see the translation of often hurried and unconsidered renderings of fleeting images into structured and thought-through images which communicate that frozen moment combined with the memories, emotions and ideas that have emerged during the period between that first experience and the finished painting.
Communication is important, and the final artworks are not obscure or obtuse. Nevertheless, Sutherland introduces a sense of ritual and combat which is how he sees and wishes to represent a sense of universal struggle beneath the prosaic mundanity of the actual tasks of miners, quarrymen and steel workers. Part of this is his remit as an official war artist to provide morale-boosting art “covering traditional themes of heroism, national vigour and resistance.” (Ronan Thomas, war historian), but equally it reflects his deep personal thoughts and feelings about how this “symbolised a kind of eternal war; a constant conflict between man and nature – the turning of iron into steel a primitive combat”. In the physical act of walking through the exhibition we see the addition of motifs and poetic imagery as we move from in situ sketches to preparatory drawings and paintings to finished paintings. This can be clearly noted in the development of the figures in the compositions. Sutherland takes poses and stances from his memory and knowledge of art history in order to signify the nobility he senses in these workers, and to capture the almost dance-like quality he sees in their performance of the rituals of furnace-feeding and steel-making.
The range of images on display runs from small sketches and sketchbook pages capturing the activities of the miners and steelworkers as they go about their business, through various works where Sutherland applies style and media techniques to his ideas, to examples of finished paintings. This detailed record of process shows how the artist brings together the components of an artwork in order to make a statement about the activities and the workers rather than the depiction of a specific circumstance. Sutherland termed his initial sketchbook work as “visual dictionaries” to provide visual reference to connect with his thoughts and feelings about each subject. The written accompaniment to the images in the exhibition clarifies the processes of producing art, quoting Sutherland’s thoughts and comments on the relationship of humans and nature, reflected here in the struggle to extract raw materials from the earth and turn them into machines. As he says, “…I’ve always been absolutely astonished by the curious primitiveness of the heavy machine industry and how the thing almost, as it were, arises out of the earth…”
This perplexity is captured time after time in the images. Sutherland captures the hard work and struggle of the miners and steelworkers in the extreme environments of their workplaces, then he adds his view of these activities as machine-age rituals, carried out by initiates of the arcane roles and movements played out in the daily life of the heavy industry practices of the 20th century. This reflects the modernist nature of the art, moving from depictions of specific activities to statements about the human condition. It’s a most interesting exhibition in that, like Sutherland and his fellow modernists it connects the specific, in this case the local place interest of miners at Geevor, with the universal. While this almost heroic scale of thought is no longer a central theme of British art, the importance of Sutherland is demonstrated in the way one can see the influence of earlier war artists like Paul Nash in some of these images. His visual style confirms his equal status to contemporaries such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and there are glimpses in the anthropomorphic suggestions in his painting of furnaces and other large machines of his influence on painters such as Francis Bacon.
An exhibition that makes you think, and draws you back for further viewings is a good one, and that's certainly the case with this one. It’s on until November 23rd, which isn’t that long. However, if this, and some of their other recent shows are to go by, Penlee House is making a serious contribution to public understanding of Modernist art, and there are more ideas and exhibitions to excite eyes and imagination to come.
All quotes are taken from the information sheet on sale at the gallery, which contains the texts of the useful information boards which are strategically placed throughout the exhibition.