8. Form in nature
An artist in his time
In everything he produced as artist/designer Graham Sutherland was trying to communicate the deeper meanings he discovered in natural forms. To enter this highly personal world of rocks, wildlife, and people, we have to discard any notions derived from popular images of beauty. We need to accept that works of art depicting nature need not look 'natural' in a photographic sense. Indeed, to Sutherland this conventional interpretation makes it impossible to create our own visual vocabulary, either as artists or viewers, and get to the spiritual heart of places and objects. To fully understand his Coventry tapestry, viewers need to appreciate his stylistic 'alphabet', and the visual codes he invented to depict natural forms so that he could unlock their doors to original ideas. An awareness of these symbolic keys enables us to trace his pictorial elements back to their origins as real objects out of doors, which for some reason arrested his attention. He was already wedded to this symbolic approach to reality when he took on the tapestry commission. It was therefore inevitable that he would use it as an artistic vehicle to express his established conviction that we are as much a part of nature as our features are part of us. He therefore set out to humanise the tapestry's design specification by stretching it beyond the strictly religious rules to include an important parallel message, that reality is a dispersed and disintegrated form of imagination. That is to say, imagination is required to assemble truly meaningful pictures- of darkness and light- of decay and life- of natural and supernatural.
Sutherland was situated historically in the mainstream of European art, which by his time had discarded photographic realism. When trying to recreate landscapes of symbols, Sutherland was in the realm of world-class symbolic artists such as Gauguin, although his major influences came from a pair of more obscure English artists, William Blake and Samuel Palmer, who worked between the 18th and 19th centuries. Even further back in time, painting in symbols had been the self-imposed task of medieval artists of the fourteenth century. Sutherland's sympathy with the symbolism of Blake, who saw 'a world in a grain of sand', and Palmer, who discovered Paradise in an obscure Kentish valley, was really to revive and reinterpret many long-standing spiritual notions about nature.
Most of medieval art, of which Christ in Glory carved over church portals is a common example, may be classified as open symbolism. That is to say, its pictorial elements are presented in a language that every educated person was expected to understand. Thanks to his or her conventional attribute, each saint could be instantly recognised. Most people today are illiterate in this respect, and are bewildered by the very icon that was intended to enlighten them. To make it even more difficult for us to read the tapestry, Sutherland's art is in the class of closed symbolism. That is to say, each symbol in the composition is expected to resonate in the mind of the viewer, and become amplified by highly personal, open-ended, mental associations.
The fact is that the impact of a work with closed symbolism, such as the Coventry tapestry, is much more that the sum total of the symbols it contains. Any art described as symbolist has, behind the shapes and colours on the picture surface, something else, another realm of nature, probably with another order of meaning. In the case of Sutherland, the creative process of visual abstraction applied to a cliff of stratified rocks could reveal spires and domes of cathedrals; a tree- trunk cast up on the foreshore became a horned beast; the meeting of water and land became an altar on which was placed a bowl of burnished metal containing a massive chain. This basic process is not a rare gift. We are all able to take the first mental steps with Sutherland when we look hard at any natural object. Faces, and strange embodied creatures appear as if by magic. Sutherland's talent is to detach what he termed these 'figurative elements', and assemble them on canvas as a uniquely balanced blend of lines, curves and colours. So, a small group of sea-eroded rocks becomes a landscape of immense hills, full of drama. Because of this unique stylistic signature, Sutherland's pictures yield more from concentrated mental effort than was originally required for him, or us, to follow one form to another in the real location.
Graham Sutherland's methods of seeing fascinating things in nature, and then trying to understand the principles of what he saw, may be used as educational metaphors about how to establish human relationships with nature, in a spiritual, if not a Godly, dimension. We have the tapestry as his blackboard, and his own words to help us in this interactive meditation. Further, we may cross- reference his images to those of Blake and Palmer, which he adopted and made his own. Unlike Blake, Graham Sutherland, although he felt strongly enough about the place of God in his life to become a convert to the Catholic Church, has said very little about his religious motivations, but this is an advantage in providing a neutral background for us to use his interpretations of nature to focus our own wonder.
The natural world of the tapestry
Eggs and insects
In religious art an oval shape, polarised with acute angles, is frequently used as an icon of human fertility. Its ancient origin is the shape of the nut of the almond tree, which also has a form resembling the human womb. In outline the almond delineates the shape of the secondary sexual characteristics enclosing a female vagina. Its conventional use as the mandorla to enclose 'Christ in Glory' symbolises the birthing font of Christianity. In similar contexts, the shape has been frequently encoded in pictures where the artist feels it necessary to emphasise the power of sexual reproduction. Notably it occurs several times in Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus'. Graham Sutherland used all devices available to him to personalise the concept of 'Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph' with the main objective of creating a figure "of great contained vitality. However, it is clear from other works that Sutherland's imagination was tuned to see the mandorla motive in almost everything- in the soft folds of rock formations sliced across in sea cliffs,- in the rounded shapes of eroded fossils projecting above the softer sediments in which they had been deposited. The detection of sexual connotations in shorelines must have been an immemorial pastime of sailors longing for the next harbour. Occasionally, this metaphorical pre-disposition has been written into maps. 'Deborah's Hole is an otherwise meaningless label for an inaccessible cleft in the hostile Gower coastline of South Wales, which can only be seen from a passing boat. The 'Grand Teton' in North America was a comforting sexual metaphor for a forbidding mountain range seen by the first French colonists.
Within the mandorla is another icon of fertility symbolised in the strange egg-shape of Christ's body below the waist. In Michael Sadgrove's, meditation the mandorla triggered him to develop the notion of 'the great world-egg in primitive mythology which when hatched becomes the living universe". Sutherland appears to have selected this egg-shape as a paraphrase of the fecund abdomen of insects, notably members of the order Hymenoptera, the bees and wasps. The selection of this entomological group, defined by their 'hymen-like' wings may be a reinforcement of the birth- message of his basic imagery. Applying Sutherland's method of contemplation to his own Christ figure as a whole, transforms it into a gigantic Phasmid. These are insects in the entomological Order Orthoptera which includes the Praying Mantis or Soothsayer. Laurens Van Der Post relates in his account of the spiritual world of the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari, that talking to a Praying Mantis was a way for them to communicate with their deities.
In his famous 1945 picture of the 'bee-lady', entitled 'Woman in a Garden', who's lower body is also modelled on an insect's abdomen, Sutherland has placed a grid of hexagons in the background symbolising a honeycomb. Cross-links made to other works by Sutherland with the insect paraphrase take us back to Exodus with the evocation of a 'land flowing with milk and honey'. In other words, Sutherland's clever and powerful treatment of the mandorla has the potential to elicit a multitude of notions, many of which transport us to other works, times, gods and meanings. For example, when his Christ is viewed as an insect, Man at His feet becomes an abdominal appendage- an ovipositor through which man may reborn in, and through, Him. Sutherland's basic idea of placing a man at Christ's feet appears to have been primarily an aesthetic one. But there were spiritual overtones of Man's relationship to Gods derived from Egypt's complex pantheon.
In all of these aspects Sutherland has reached his stated goal of wanting the Christ figure and its immediate surroundings to be "something slightly ambiguous: a human form, but with overtones of a nature form" "
Nature in the tetramorph
When it comes to the symbols of the evangelists, Sutherland's own idea about the Beasts of the tetramorph was that they were to be representatives of created things and objects- men, animals and plants. In this context, most of what we know about the artist's creative impulse emerged in conversations with Eric Newton. Here he states that his aim was to give each animal its own character and avoid any traditional symbolic messages coming from say, heraldry. He had in mind that each animal should have its own special character displayed through its personal vitality. Only through the "demonstration of their nature do animals pay unconscious tribute to the power which created them; by their violence or their softness, their eagerness or their predatoriness".
There are many plant, or flower-like forms in the tapestry, but the only one which expresses its own vital plant-like attribute in the same way as the animals do, is the Yucca. This is the prominent secondary object of the lion's box, or frame. As a member of the palm family the Yucca may also symbolise Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and the inevitable chain of events that it triggered which turned a small Jewish sect into a major world religion.
Graphically, the Yucca turns the lion's space into a picture in its own right. In fact all of the beasts are framed and composed as self-contained landscapes. All contain examples of the icons Sutherland created, to put physical and biological structure into his landscape paintings. A search for symbolic landscapes in Revelation which could provide a model for the Lion/Yucca landscape is found in the account of the river of life. This may be visualised in the symbolic tract of water, flowing from a fractured rock above the lion window, which separates the lion's face from its mane. Thereby, we can see the Yucca as the tree of life, beside the water of life, whose leaves are for the healing of nations (Rev:22). This particular section of Revelation, which tells of the triumph of good over evil, has, over the ages, been a potent source of Christian music, poetry, and drama.
According to Sutherland, trees are like people in a landscape that can be moved around by an artist to introduce drama:
"Trees have extraordinarily beautifully varied and rich shapes which detach them from their proper connotation as trees; one doesn't think of them as trees really; rather as figures&ldots;ready to lead a separate identity"
We occasionally get glimpses, within the tetramorph of Sutherland's idiosyncratic preferences in posing, and characterising his objects. He is on record as saying he has 'little enthusiasm' for eagles but 'loves' the form of the eagle owl, which was the species he actually used as a template for this icon. He was trying hard to escape from heraldic conventions when he finally decided to make the bird as if it had alighted. This gives it the certain strangeness and potency he was apparently seeking.
The human image in Matthew's window evolved from the artist's idea of producing a figure expressing a tense eagerness to come out of a confined space into the realm of God. The artistic conception is of Man worshipping, eager to understand, eager to feel, eager to see. To the Old Testament visionaries this humanised part of the tetramorph was actually only a quarter of a complex winged cherubim, which had the combined attributes of ox, lion and eagle, and moved on wheels. Revelation separates out the attributes into four angel creatures, and omits the wheels. In medieval tetramorphs Mathew's symbol was an angel, and the other creatures were also winged. We can only muse on why Sutherland chose to present 'angel as man'. Sutherland made great graphic play with wing-like forms. This was also a trademark of Blake, and a Blake enthusiast can immediately detect his signature in the tapestry. The eagle's wings express a raptors superb breaking power when coming into land. The calf has a tuft of feathers on the end of a long arm bone. It could not possibly fly. The man has a flame-wing. The lion has no wings. All boxes have flickering flames rising through the upper margins, which is probably a reference to the prophet's descriptions of the divine energy of the tetramorph.
In contrast to the vital tension in the other figures, there is a calm bovine quality in the calf, which he wanted to depict as 'slightly hysterical, very easily afraid'. Nevertheless, its contorted limbs recall the herbivores depicted in Palaeolithic cave paintings. We may contemplate on the existence of this bovine quality in art which is 35,000 years old, and may conclude that since then there has really been no fundamental development in our imaginative and technical abilities to represent natural forms that are close to us practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes the whole body of an animal is contained in the shape of the rock. It was the rock which revealed its animal 'spirit'. We are very close to Sutherland's metaphors. Their common mental ground is specific material features, such as cracks and smooth, rounded surfaces, which are used to enhance animal features in the mind of the artist.
Although the animal forms of Palaeolithic art have a high aesthetic profile, they are usually found together with abstract shapes, such as circles, spirals, and grids. These shapes emerge in the trances of modern spiritualists, and people with certain sight defects, where they are generated from particular regions of the brain. These findings have led to the belief that the rock faces played a spiritual role in the social life of prehistoric peoples. Beyond the rock face is was their spirit world; the rock wall is a spiritual place where shamans sought power in a personal interaction at an important interface between the living and material worlds. Trances have a practical purpose- healing people who are sick. In other words, in making art against stone, a spiritual healer was trying to make sense of what the brain makes us feel. We are essentially human when we use graphic ways of portraying other realities and the Palaeolithic artist deep in a cave, or balancing on a rocky mountain side, was expressing a mind identical to our own.
Of course, Spence, when he had the idea of clothing the sheer stone face of his cathedral with soft graphics was not consciously following these particular ideas, which are relatively modern. Their juxtaposition gives Sutherland's art a remarkable timeless resonance nevertheless.
Other natural forms
Those observers who are tuned in to Sutherland's style will recognise his signature in many other natural forms woven into the tapestry. For example, there are two such elements on either side of the Cross in the Crucifixion panel. They have gentle curves found in the logarithmic spiral of a rose, and the arms of a crescent moon, but also exhibit extensions resembling sharp blades and thorn- like weapons of cruelty. Reference to Sutherland's work before he took up the tapestry commission reveals the curved orbits of animal skulls and water worn chalk. Connections through thorniness may be made with windswept gorse and blackthorn, the only plants able to survive the salty storm winds sweeping in off the Celtic Sea. They dominate his early landscapes of tunnel-like lanes and windswept coastal rock-strewn slopes of Pembrokeshire. Sutherland had made a whole series of thorn paintings before he came to the tapestry, and while on a walk in Pembrokeshire during the 1940s he reflected on the great implications of the Crucifixion:
"My mind became pre-occupied with the idea of thorns and of wounds made by thorns- on going into the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, as they pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and as I did so a curious change took place. While still retaining their own pricking space encompassing life, the thorns re- arranged themselves and became something else- a kind of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the crucified head- the essential cruelty."
The form to the right of the Cross, is a paraphrase of the entangled vegetation at the entrance to a lane. It may be traced to the preliminary sketches he made of an overgrown opening which provided access to Sandy Haven in Pembrokeshire. The actual picture 'Entrance to Lane' was completed in 1939.
Thorns are also horns. Horns become giant claws. Claws become cruel beaks. Blackened, twisted branches of burnt gorse lying on a path, become serpents- and so it goes on. The structure and evolution of the natural forms was a vital aspect of Sutherland's art. His flights of fantasy in paraphrasing nature were only checked by his desire to market his canvases to a public that, on the whole, could not join him at the frontiers of his mind.
Sutherland's mission was to discover a way of making quite ordinary natural forms, which we see, but do not look at, available as extended ideas in paintings.
" If one duty of painting is to explain the essence of things and emotions, may not it also be a duty, sometimes, not to explain- but to accept? Do we need an explanation of the flight of a bird, or a flash of lightening? Do we need to be told why a rose is shaped thus? Coleridge said that poetry gives most pleasure when generally and not perfectly understood. These lines of Blake are possibly obscure:
My spectre round me night and day
Like a wild beast guards my way:
My emanation far within
Weeps incessantly for my sin.
but it may be argued that their mysterious music is actually enhanced by that obscurity. So in painting it might be argued that its very obscurity preserves a magical and mysterious purpose. It could be said, on the other hand, that much contemporary work, which is thought to be obscure, may be merely suffering the time- lag in appreciation which has so often operated against painters in their lifetime."
It is possible that Sutherland came to Blake because his work unites the timeless with the timely, the sense of destiny with the sense of present. Blake certainly had an ear which caught the whisper of the Everlasting Gospel in the everyday passions and objects round him. This was evident in his artistic responses to his time; the move to factory work and the enclosure of common land was putting the worker in a different place in his economy and in the living world. Much of this imagery was drawn from the texts of the Old Testament but positioned in the teachings of the New. In this perspective it covers, in one sweep of thought and symbol, from the crucifixion to the resurrection, and can be thought of as his personal book of revelation.
Taking the view that Sutherland's mind set was in tune with Blake's, and firmly embedded in the world of nature, it is not surprising that he accepted the Coventry commission which offered him the Book of Revelation, the most powerful visionary book in the Bible, as a thematic menu. These days, Revelation is usually reduced to a literal timetable of events. Sutherland, particularly by his resistance to depicting the Last Judgement, saw it as something to catch his imagination and activate him as an individual stylist and inventor. We may therefore see his handiwork as a poetic and inspiring expression of real events in human history positioned in the vast time-line of notional eternity. By meditating through his natural symbols and imagery we may, whatever our beliefs, respond like the isolated and fragile congregation of John of Patmos, and seek to fulfil our desires for peace, freedom, and security in a world where we are part of nature in everything we do.