Head on a Balcony signed and dated 'Sutherland 1952' (lower right) oil on canvas 91.4 x 71.1 cm. (36 x 28 in.)
PROVENANCE: With The Redfern Gallery, London, where acquired by the father of the present owner, 23rd August 1952
The presentation at Bonhams of Head on a Balcony is the first public showing for over half a century of this important and striking oil on canvas. Painted in 1952 and exhibited at The Redfern Gallery that year, the work was purchased very shortly after by the present owners' father. It was also the year in which arguably Graham Sutherland's reputation became truly international; the artist enjoyed three rooms dedicated to his work at the prestigious Venice Biennale, only four years after Henry Moore cemented his reputation on the global stage at the same event. Indeed, the renowned art critic Herbert Read, 'had been told again and again by foreign critics and others that the British pavilion was the most vital, brilliant and promising in the whole Biennale, and then by Alfred Barr, of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland a Biography, Faber & Faber, 1982, London, p.155).
The present canvas relates closely to Head III (Tate Collection), painted the following year, and more widely to a body of work executed throughout the early 1950s which drew on 'Standing Forms' for their inspiration, and were effectively Sutherland's initial forays into portraiture. They had, in part, evolved from his highly successful canvases of the late 1940s depicting magnified cicadas (a cricket or grasshopper-like insect) standing upright, which themselves evoked human forms. Although their true genesis can be seen in one large canvas dating from 1950, which kick-started the decade for Sutherland, Standing Form Against Hedge (Arts Council of Great Britain). Whilst not necessarily the earliest work to use the 'Standing Form' motif it is, probably, the most fully realised. These pictures caused enormous debate at the time and Sutherland was clearly keen to try and enlighten his critics:
'They do not of course mean anything. The forms are based on the principles of organic growth, with which I have always been preoccupied. To me they are monuments and presences. But why use these forms instead of human figures? Because, at the moment, I find it necessary to catch the taste the quality - the essence of the presence of the human figure: the mysterious immediacy of a figure standing in a room or against a hedge in its shadow, its awareness, its regard, as if one had never seen it before by a substitution.'(quoted in John Hayes, Graham Sutherland, Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1980, p.30).
Whilst the suggestion in the title of Head on a Balcony is that of a human's anatomy, the surreal 'being' on top of the pedestal resembles more a crustacean. Bizarrely, on the left side of this horizontal creature a large black eye, highlighted with light injecting it with life, stares out at the viewer apparently as interested in us as we are with it. This intriguing head clearly fascinated Sutherland; he absorbed himself in it throughout 1952-53, reproducing it with only the most subtle alterations in two works titled Head(one whereabouts unknown, the other in a private London collection and first exhibited at the 1952 Venice Biennale), another Form on a Pedestal (private London collection) and the aforementioned Head III. The background in three of these works (both Head canvases and Tate's picture), are almost identical in format and colour, whereas Form on a Pedestal employs a more imaginative and colourful backdrop very similar to Head on a Balcony. Sutherland explained his interest in experimental backgrounds, 'Colour can create form; it can also create a mood; it is fascinating to make complete changes of colour in the background of a painting and see how the whole atmosphere changes' (Op.cit., p.28). With the Crosfield painting, the use of pink and various shades of blue to the background is instrumental in creating a benign and peaceful head, contrasting markedly with Tate's Head III background of dark brown, that switches the emphasis to a more menacing atmosphere where the standing form becomes almost predatory and threatening.
Whilst all of these paintings have at one stage been reproduced in literature or exhibited in museums, it would appear that only Head on a Balcony has evaded any form of exposure until that is, now. Further, it is also the only one from this group which places the standing form in a real setting, a balcony, an elevated structure which serves as the 'displaying platform', thus contextualizing the 'figure' more than its counterparts.
The sculptural qualities invested in the present work are not surprising when one looks at Sutherland's other artistic interest at this time. It is easy to forget with his masterful output of paintings that he embarked on a number of sculptures, also in 1952. Arguably the most successful of these is Standing Figure, a 21 in. high bronze cast in an edition of 6 from a plaster model, which draws parallels with Head on a Balcony. Both works have mutated to varying degrees into what has been described by Douglas Cooper as 'fetish-like abstractions which proclaim their organic origins'. Considering the exciting renaissance in British sculpture at exactly this time (the talented Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull among others all exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952 alongside Sutherland) it is perhaps surprising that Sutherland did not pursue this medium more thoroughly, especially considering his personal views on sculpture:
'I would really like to have been a sculptor. In some ways I much prefer sculpture as a medium, partly because when you've made something, when you've got to a certain stage, it's there. It's in front of you. You can touch it. You can put your hand around it, whereas a painting is a very ephemeral thing.' (quoted in Roger Berthoud, Op.cit., p.153).
Perhaps Sutherland was content leaving British sculpture to a new and radical generation. In the meantime he went about producing some of his most applauded works, those of the 'Standing Forms', and Bonhams are delighted to exhibit one of the more refreshing examples of these paintings, which has been off the radar now for sixty years.