I have just put down Graham Greene's 'The Comedians', Haiti is on your finger tips when you turn the pages, you can smell Port-au-Prince. Greene gives the place, it's one of his great skills, the sense of place. His Catholicism is much vaunted but there was little in the way of piety, he knew all the dark places and this knowledge suffuses all his work. The same generation, the same religion, the same skills, the artist Graham Sutherland can also conjure the blackness. During the 1930's Sutherland's star ascended and he became one of Britain's leading modernists. In 1934 he visited Pembrokeshire, "I was visiting a country, a part of which, at least, spoke a foreign tongue, and it certainly seemed foreign to me, though sufficiently accessible for me to feel that I could claim it as my own". He did, he had found a place. "The whole setting is one of exuberance, of darkness and light, of decay and life. Rarely have I been so conscious of the contrasting of these elements in so small a compass". The landscapes and studies that had their origins in this countryside are remarkable and established him as an artist with a unique vision.
The 'Black Landscape', above, painted in 1939 broods and threatens like the dark forces which were massing on the other side of the English channel. In complete contrast, burning bright, the painting 'Western Hills', begun in 1938 completely captures the intellectual and emotional essence of a place,and also demonstrates his debt to Palmer.
It was Sutherland's practise to make shorthand drawings and sketches on his excursions and then select and work up the images back in his studio.Through this way of working he developed an imaginative style which links him to the worlds of Symbolism and Surrealism, natural forms are developed dramatically, growing in mystery often menacing or erotic. The links to the art of his friend Francis Bacon are also very evident, it was Sutherland who kickstarted Bacon's career in 1946 with an insistent introduction to Erica Brausen at the Hanover gallery.
In the mid fifties Sutherland bought a villa, La Villa Blanche at Menton near Nice. His palette changed, the cold yellows of North Wales were exchanged for the dazzling yellows of the Mediterrean but the imagination remained in top gear. There were great paintings made and some superb portraits produced. Living in luxuriant exile away from the creative hubs his reputation may not have diminished but he was out of the spotlight and the undeniable religious undertones in much of his work made it positively unfashionable, the thorn was out of favour. In 1967 Sutherland returned to his place, Pembrokeshire, it was the first visit for twenty years, he was reinvigorated and he was to return two or three times every year until his death in 1980.
These later Pembroke paintings tend to be larger and more frontal, images parallel to the picture plane. There is more geometry, symmetry and balance. These brilliant works are complex and consuming, they still have the drama of the early paintings but they are less confrontational, they are grave and elegiac and their mood is consistently disquieting.
It is said of Graham Greene that his genius was the ingenuity with which he could muddy the water. Dirty ditch water is perceived as bottomless because the bottom cannot be seen. This was a genius Greene shared with Graham Sutherland.
The Grand Chalet Rossiniere is the largest chalet in Switzerland and one of the biggest wooden structures in Europe. It was built in the 1750's and in 1977 it became the home of the painter Balthus. The chalet was bought for Balthus by his dealer Pierre Matisse. Matisse was a hugely influential and successful dealer operating out of his New York gallery. His stable was impressive, Giacometti, Chagall, Miro, Derain, Balthus, Tanguy the list goes on. Like all great dealers he cossetted, protected and invested in his brood, the golden egg layers. It took Balthus, whose painting output was prodigiously slow, many years to produce the necessary canvasses to repay his Matisse mortgage. The dealers, the galleries that are the necessary engines that drive the global art market have all learnt from Matisse, but it is now a world of brand promotion rather than informed collection. It is a multi billion pound marketplace organised by the seigneurs and sultans of the grand auction houses and international galleries, Lisson, Flowers, Marlborough, White Cube, et al. Like all markets it has it's mucky corners and swilling around in this financial ocean are huge shoals of dirty banknotes getting cleansed through commodification, brand collecting is asset building. It always was, of course, when ' Jack and Tom Smith', the young Charles Stuart and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham were scouring through the merchants of Europe for masterpieces, building the Stuart portfolio they were enhancing their status along with their assets, it was the seventeenth century oligarch game. What one has to say about Balthus is that he knew his worth and didn't compromise his art for a quick closure, the mortgage was a long one and the repayments were not onerous.
I have in my life a set of constants to which I regularly return, artists, authors, musicians whose work I still find challenging but affirming and supportive. There are other artists whose work interests me and who have occupied me for periods of time but without any lasting allegiance. One of these artists is Christopher Le Brun. In the 80's I was taken up with his work. He was sometime bracketed with the Neo Expressionists but I always felt that was a lazy association to make. I enjoyed the mysticism and lyrical romanticism that suffused his work, he described himself as a visionary painter in the tradition of Turner and Blake. The paint handling didn't inspire me but I felt it was thoughtful, considered work, interesting in a way that much painting of the time was not. I lost sight of Le Brun, I knew he had become the President of the Royal Academy but I hadn't followed his work trajectory. Then earlier this year I saw an announcement that he had joined the Lisson Gallery, I was surprised but then I saw the work and understood.
From mystic to mundane, from interesting to international, sad but predictable. Lisson can make you a millionaire, it's what they do. If you are in your mid sixties it's time to pep up the pension pot, who wouldn't pick up the chalice.
'Dream, Think, Speak', Christopher Le Brun. 1981-82
AGED AND AWKWARD