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Artwork in Focus | Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland
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Revd Rupert Toovey takes a closer look at Graham Sutherland’s powerful depiction of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Over the centuries, it has always been the gift of great artists to reflect upon the world we all share and to allow us, through their work, to glimpse something of what lies beyond our immediate perception.
The 20th century brought the shared and shocking experience of war to two generations. It has often been the role of enlightened patrons to enable artists to express their visions. In 1942, as bombs fell upon Britain, Walter Hussey, on Kenneth Clark’s recommendation, commissioned Henry Moore to carve Madonna and Child in the warm hues of Hornton stone at St. Matthew’s, Northampton, where he was vicar.
As the sculpture was nearing completion, Hussey talked to Moore about a number of artists he was considering for a large painting in the south transept. Henry Moore unhesitatingly recommended Graham Sutherland.
[The crucifixion] is the most tragic of all themes yet inherent in it is the promise of salvation.
Hussey had in mind the Agony in the Garden as a subject. Sutherland confessed his ambition “to do a Crucifixion of a significant size” and Hussey agreed. Writing of the finished work, Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery and responsible for the War Artists project, said, “Sutherland’s Crucifixion is the successor to the Crucifixion of Grünewald and the early Italians”.
In 1955, Winston Churchill’s last ecclesiastical appointment was to install Walter Hussey as Dean of Chichester Cathedral, where his influence bore much fruit. How appropriate, then, that Walter Hussey’s gift of much of his collection to Chichester should reside at Pallant House Gallery.
The Gallery’s 1947 Crucifixion by Sutherland displays his obsession with thorns as metaphors for human cruelty; their jagged lines are reflected throughout the composition. The American military published a book of photographs which featured scenes of the Nazi concentration camps, including images of those held captive at Belsen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
To Sutherland, “many of the tortured bodies looked like figures deposed from crosses” and he acknowledged the influence of these photographs on his Crucifixions.
Here, Jesus Christ’s body hangs lifeless upon the cross, the shocking red of His blood accentuated by the fertile green. There is agony in the body’s posture, the weight clearly visible in the angular shoulders, chest and distorted stomach. This is a God who understands and shares in human suffering. Graham Sutherland, a Roman Catholic, was sustained by his Christian faith all his life. He commented that he was drawn to the subject of the Crucifixion because of its duality.
He noted that the Crucifixion “is the most tragic of all themes yet inherent in it is the promise of salvation”.
In Sutherland’s versions, a generation united in their common story finally had depictions of the Crucifixion which reflected their experience of the world and yet spoke loudly of the triumph of hope in response to the tragedy of war.
This article orginially appeared in Pallant House Gallery Magazine, No. 32 (Spring 2014.
Want to know more about Graham Sutherland and his commissioned artworks for the church? Don’t miss our online talk, Noli me Tangere by Graham Sutherland l 60 Year Anniversary on Thursday 22 April 2021.