George Shaw and Graham Sutherland – in light of An Unfinished World

I am like a whimpering lovesick puppy at the moment – I follow 45 year-old George Shaw everywhere he goes. First it was a short journey to Coventry, to see his painting. Next it was to Oxford because he had curated an exhibition held at Modern Art Gallery. With each step, the direct imprint of the artist has lessened, yet I continue searching for where he’s been – I must be obsessed.


He’s fantastic, and my expectation for this exhibition are wholly (I know, shameless bias) based upon the trust I hold in his curating ability. This creative-genius could of course magic something fantastic out of nothing (that this exhibition is actually about Graham Sutherland is irrelevant.) I know, I know, but how do I know his curatorship is to be trusted? Well, I’ve heard Shaw discussing his works, and have found myself clinging to every word he says. Sharp and poetic – he’s really got ideas worth latching onto, which he articulates them clearly and imaginatively.


Sutherland, I have to admit, I’ve never had a lot of interest in. This is in part because I know very little of it (so utter ignorance – though you could say the art scene has for years been ignorant to him), and this in itself is due to the fact that I usually find war art only drags me down, and this isn’t what I hope to get from art. I think of it as all being grey, dreary and concrete – it is unbreakable. But if George likes him, I’m willing…


Please permit me to endorse Shaw a little longer, and read Sutherland’s exhibition through the eyes that have been shaped by recently seeing ‘I Woz Ere.’ In my review of said exhibition (in The Student Journals), I brought to attention the Britishness of Shaw’s landscapes and praised them for being such. Now I think this may be the reason I don’t like considering war. War threatens our Britishness – ever looming invasion leaves the homeland at a loss to its solid national identity. But then, could Shaw’s use of medium – humbrol paints – be a subtle hint to the Blitz? …It’s time to turn our glance back…


Amongst Sutherland’s scenes of Blitzed streets, dilapidated and hopeless, there is nostalgia – the trait of a romantic artist. Sutherland reinvented the British romantic landscape that George Shaw would then pick up much later in the century, when picturing places around Coventry – the city famously and devastatingly hit during World War Two. George Shaw, in interview on Front Row, said the sitter for his paintings, Tile Hill, a suburb of Coventry, couldn’t lay claim to the beautiful notion of rising up from the ashes that Coventry could since this time. Tile Hill was a new creation. The council estate that he was brought up on had no heritage. But in these scenes from life, was contained his own heritage. Therefore in painting them, he provided an opportunity to ruminate on his past.


Therefore both painters appear to be history painters – not in art historian theoretical terms, but in that they find their inspiration in reminiscing. This romanticism is surprising. It isn’t the luscious greenery of Constable or rocky Lake District soars of Turner, but concrete builds and machine-like scenes.


Sutherland’s exhibited works on paper come from three periods – pre-war scenes of the Welsh countryside, 1940s wartime scenes from the homeland where he was appointed to be as an official war artist, and 1970s landscapes back in refuge in Pembrokeshire. Shaw’s realistic works are hard not to read of a time and place specific, whereas Sutherland’s are quite different. They are surreal and fantastical, and hard to fully identifiable in terms of content, or of location, (despite this exhibition clearing allocating the when and where of them.) This atmosphere is only enhanced by an absence of figures, which is true in Shaw’s but to quite a different effect…




An Unfinished World (works on paper by Graham Sutherland, curated by George Shaw) is being held at Modern Art Oxford until 18 March 2012. Entry is free.

2 Responses to “George Shaw and Graham Sutherland – in light of An Unfinished World”
  1. D says:

    Curious. Any links to pieces by George Shaw?

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