The words modern and Oxford don’t often come together in the same sentence, so I was intrigued to see what an exhibition on modern British artist Graham Sutherland at Modern Art Oxford would entail. Among the picturesque architecture, and cobbled back streets of Oxford, MAO offers an alternative to the more traditional Ashmolean.
The exhibition entitled Graham Sutherland – An Unfinished Work is curated by former 2011 Turner prize nominee George Shaw and predominantly focuses on welsh landscapes of the Pembrokeshire countryside. All are studies on paper, of which there are over 80 rarely seen works. The title for this exhibition probably comes from the fact that there are no follow up canvases from the studies on show, only preparatory work. While the mix media studies are insightful, the showing of at least one final piece would have been nice to be able to see in what direction exactly Sutherland was going.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with the muddy browns, greens and greys of pembrokeshire, evolving into a rather juxtaposed palette of greys and blacks when Sutherland becomes a war artist, then a representation of the artists return to Wales in the 1970s. I found the war images the most striking. After all the earthy tones depicted previously, the rubble and destruction in the Devastation Series of 1941 is a far cry from the beauty of the pembrokeshire countryside.
I think it is unfortunate that most critics have chosen to focus on the odd choice of curator over the content inside the exhibition. Both artists painted Britain and had a loose connection to Coventry, and it is clear from the focus on preparatory work that Shaw appreciates Sutherland’s work and the processes behind them. I feel that Shaw presented a good representation of Sutherland’s work and even showed that at times, there was some colour among the greys and browns in the forms of rainbows; landscape painting is a British tradition after all.
Graham Sutherland – An Unfinished Work is open at Modern Art Oxford until March 18
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