By IRIS CONLAY
A RTISTS neither talk nor write very much about their work. There are notable exceptions of course we
know a great deal about Michelangelo's problems and those of Van Gogh from their letters, but of the great commissions of the past we learn little from the artists themselves of how the work progressed from day to day. This is not surprising. The artist's medium is nut words,
and all he has to say he puts
into the work and leaves it to speak for him. Nevertheless there is a natural curiosity in most of us to know more, to wonder what prompted imagi nation to take its particular direction, to reconstruct the setting. and the models and to conjecture about the patron's restrictions.
Generations to come will be able to satisfy all their curiosity concerning Graham Suther land's great tapestry in Coventry Cathedral through two sources which are comple
mentary to each other the exhibition of many of the pre
liminary sketches of the whole and its details to be retained permanently at Coventry (now showing at the Redfern, Gal
lery, London) and a book The Coventry Tapestry, a series of
conversations that took place between Graham Sutherland and Andrew Rive; about the genesis of the tapestry and about religious art.
The exhibition is tremendously revealing. Here we see the basic sketches of the Christ figure, like a natural leaf form, already bearing a close resem blance to the finished shape. We see the animals before they become emblems, in their rea listic form sketched at Maid stone Zoo. We see studies. too, of a Pieta, a Visitation and an
Annunciation which afterwards were abandoned and replaced by the Crucifixion.
We are shown the magnificent vast drawings of hands and feet copied from his own and enlarged enormously, and finally the many experiments with the face of Christ from the earliest inspired by something seen on a reliquary in Limoges enamel.
What Mr. Sutherland actually said about the making of the
head of Christ is particularly revealing. Mr. Revai asked him, "did you make any actual studies from nature?" Sutherland replied. "No, I made studies from nature for the figure only. I studied the proportions of my own head, and I looked at myself in a glass with regard to lighting and so on. The final head really derived from a hundred differ ern things photographs of cyclists, close-ups of people, photographs of eyes. Egyptian art, Rembrandt and many others."
In a chapter entitled The Problem of Religious Art, Mr. Sutherland is pressed to describe what seems to him 'a religious artist'. "As I see him" he says. "he is someone who brings his skill and understanding to bear on the problem of giving expression to the tenets of an organised belief. Those who have done this best in the past have gained no doubt from their belief. But they seem to have excelled especially because, in addition to this. they were naturally good artists. But is it not a fact that the possession of such a gift may be held outside any organised faith?
"It seems clear to me that there are various kinds of artists who, whether believers or not, have produced or could produce what could be called religious art both today and in the past. It is claimed for Matisse, for instance, that he was not a Christian. 'Yet he was drawn to de the work at Vence. Slight though this is, it is imbued nevertheless with a certain religious feeling, as I believe are most of his very late works.
"But I am also thinking of others: Picasso, Goya and Rembrandt, for instance. These artists come to mind because deeply rooted in them there is a genius for expression, a largeness of spirit, great perspicacity and curiosity, to say nothing of technical invention and a passion close to the sentiment which could be called, properly. T think, religious."
This important book, this exciting exhibition are both landmarks in the development of the religious arts of our time. They ought not to be neglected.
'EX IBIT ION : 'Christ in
Glory' Redfern Gallery until June 12.
BOOK: "The Coventry Tapestry", text edited by Andrew Rival based on conversations with Graham Sutherland (Pallas Gallery and Zwemmer publication 35s).