Books: Sutherland and Bacon, a story of friends disuniting

Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon compared and contrasted

Although strikingly different in temperament, as artists and friends Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and Francis Bacon (1909-92) were very close in the 1940s. Initially, Bacon stood to gain much from this staunch ally, but relations cooled thereafter, and latterly the scorn of the younger—and by then more acclaimed—artist bewildered Sutherland. I would suggest their divergence was probably inevitable. It was foreshadowed in a letter Sutherland wrote to a patron in 1944, regretting there were “so many competitors to stop one thinking—speed, the cinema, the Press, to mention a few”. Ironically, Sutherland’s anathemas were at the core of Bacon’s more subversive agenda.

In Bacon and Sutherland Martin Hammer follows the trend for binary oppositions—the Sylvester/Berger “battles”, “sacred and profane”, “Bacon and Picasso”—and this set the tone for predictably partisan reviews. He is scrupulously even-handed in his treatment of these two major British artists, yet the forced dialectic tends to marginalise contemporaries of equal relevance; Moore and Piper, for instance, are seldom in evidence here, although visual comparisons with Sutherland’s paintings, especially, would have been useful. On the other hand, of Bacon in the 1930s and 1940s—unlike Sutherland—we know virtually nothing. Dr Hammer is aware of this, and his wide-ranging and meticulous contextual research go a long way towards fulfilling his wish to enlarge and clarify the scant existing documentation: a valuable appendix transcribes the complete Bacon–Sutherland correspondence.

Conspicuously less prolific than Sutherland, the period between 1937 and 1947 in Bacon’s career is represented today by a mere 10 paintings. Since none of them has been adequately interpreted, Dr Hammer’s close scrutiny is rewarding. His trawl of published sources led him to heed (as I did not) John Russell’s reference to the significance of photographs of wild animals in Bacon’s formulation of the imagery in his pivotal Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion (1944). Moreover, Dr Hammer sees affinities here with Sutherland, who, he suggests, may even have introduced Bacon to Marius Maxwell’s book of photographs of African big game: if some of the specific comparisons with lumbering hippopotami and rhinoceroses appear rather tenuous (Bacon’s “sources” are invariably complicated by their multiplicity), his incontrovertible identification of the relationship between Maxwell’s fuzzy photograph of an African buffalo and Bacon’s Figure in a landscape (1945) is both fascinating and important.

Bacon and Sutherland contains many such insights. The author is right to lay stress on Sutherland’s insistence that his roots in Blake and Palmer did not preclude inspiration from Picasso, Masson or Fautrier, while, at the opposite end of the spectrum, he quotes a seminal and revealing letter Bacon wrote to Sonia Orwell in 1954, concerning a proposal for a book, illustrated by photographs, that would “see underneath…the events of the last 40 years”. Dr Hammer’s text is arranged in three long, dense sections, titled “Interactions”, “Devastation”, “Influences”, in which he writes thoroughly and compellingly about cultural contexts (for example, London Existentialism). I would, however, take issue with him on at least one fundamental point: that “threat and anxiety” manifested in Bacon’s paintings were “a pictorial expression of the sense of fear induced by the Blitz”. Was Bacon “prompted by current events” (the inclusion of Lee Miller’s photographs of concentration camp victims is misleading, for it is chronologically irrelevant), or did such base manifestations of human cruelty and conflict only serve to confirm his already well-developed sense of tragedy, his nihilism and his personal psychology? In spite of Bacon’s proposals to Sonia Orwell, and given that all art is tied, to some extent, to the culture that produced it, I would argue that the imagery of Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion (the biomorphic forms, the snarling mouths) was present in Bacon’s work well before the outbreak of World War II. Perhaps we can look forward to Dr Hammer’s theories re-opening debate on Bacon’s “horror-fretted” canvases.

Graham Sutherland: landscapes, war scenes, portraits, 1924-50 accompanies an impressive exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery (until 25 September), and Bacon and Sutherland coincided with the exemplary British Council exhibition, “Francis Bacon: portraits and heads” at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (until 5 September). Dr Hammer also contributed an essay, “Clearing away the screens”, to the catalogue of the latter, but if your funds are limited opt for his comprehensive exegesis in Bacon and Sutherland, which more than covers the ground of the others. Among the editorial slips that could have been avoided, in both publications Dr Hammer persistently refers to Sutherland’s Crucifixion at St Matthew’s, Northampton, as an “altarpiece”: crucially, it was always intended to stand alone in the south transept of the church, in relation not to any altar but to Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child.

According to the Dulwich catalogue blurb, Sutherland’s milieu is “a somewhat neglected generation”, yet the exhibition’s cut-off date of 1950 is further evidence of the return to critical favour of neo-Romanticism, of which David Mellor’s A Paradise Lost (1987) was an early marker. It is probably true, though, that Sutherland’s reputation was in decline before his posthumous Tate retrospective in 1982, and it is to be hoped that the intriguing selection of 85 paintings and drawings at Dulwich will, together with the catalogue, inspire a reassessment of his whole career.

Bacon, meanwhile is ubiquitous, but his legendary secrecy has ensured that, for the foreseeable future, scholars will continue to try to decode his oeuvre: Martin Hammer has skilfully penetrated some of the layers of obfuscation.

Author of In camera—Francis Bacon: photography, film and the practice of painting (Thames & Hudson, 2005).

o Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005), 224 pp, 100 b/w ills, 20 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 030010796X

o Martin Hammer, Graham Sutherland: landscapes, war scenes, portraits, 1924-50 (Scala, London, 2005), 125 pp, 125 col. ills, £19.95 (pb) ISBN 1857594045

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sutherland and Bacon: A story of friends disuniting'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 161 September 2005