Among the treasures of the Methodist Art Collection represented in the Shadows of the Divine exhibition is Graham Sutherland’s The Deposition (1947). Sutherland (1903-1980) was an English painter perhaps best known for his surrealistic landscapes of the Pembrokeshire coastline. Having trained as an engineer and printmaker, he turned to painting in the 1930s and quickly gained an international reputation. During World War II he was named an official war artist for Britain, an experience which shaped the remainder of his career. A convert to Roman Catholicism, he painted his first religious scenes in the late 1940s–images of Christ’s passion informed by and commenting on the horrors of the Holocaust.
As a religious painter he saw it as his duty to express doctrine in a straightforward pictorial manner. In The Deposition, his second religious painting, we see Christ in front of the cross, suspended over a sort of casket (see the full image here). The nails on the cross are bloody, and blood oozes from Christ’s side. His dead body is angular and emaciated, recalling both the victims of the Holocaust and Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altarpiece. But Christ’s face goes beyond Grünewald, and is more in the geometric, deconstructed style of cubism. The death of the imago dei is the literal defacement of humanity, the reduction of the person to an expendable pile of skin and bones. Yet as the eye follows the sombre, flat browns and grays of the bloody scene down to the receptacle in which Christ is laid, it meets a collection of fragile blues and golds: the glory of Easter is not altogether missing from this brutal depiction of suffering.
For more on The Deposition, see painter and critic Francis Hoyland’s response to it over at the Methodist Art Collection website (link). BBC Wales discusses the rise and fall of Sutherland’s reputation in Britain (link). Coventry Cathedral, home of Sutherland’s great Crucifixion tapestry, gives detailed information on his approach to religious art (pdf).
Have you been to the exhibition yet? What are your thoughts on Sutherland’s Deposition? Do you think religious art can contribute to peacebuilding today?
This Friday Public Faith moves closer to home, with material from CTPI’s recent Building Home, Building Hope conference with Scottish Churches Housing Action. Next week we look at another great British war artist, Peter Howson.
Image: Shadows of the Divine exhibition, by Brian Fischbacher. Pieces by Sutherland, Rouault and others are visible.