In 1967 Sutherland returned to Pembrokeshire for the filming of a documentary about his work by the Italian director Pier Paolo Ruggerini, Lo specchio e il miraggio. It was the first time in over twenty years that he had found himself in the landscape that had inspired his early career. His re-engagement with South West Wales was immediate and powerful. The following year he made the first of many return visits and the work of the last decade of his life was almost entirely dominated by Welsh landscapes focusing on the enduring themes of his oeuvre: the twisted organic forms which had first intrigued him in the 1930s, but now seen with fresh eyes with over twenty years of experience behind him. Painted at a point when Sutherland had established an international reputation, having exhibited at the Festival of Britain (1951), Venice Biennale (1952) and Tate, London (1953), Trees on a River Bank demonstrates the mastery of Sutherland's mature style.
This work evocatively portrays the strange organic forms Sutherland observed in nature as he strolled along the riverbank. The canvas was most likely painted in France following sketches made during the previous summer on the banks of the estuary of the Eastern Cleddau river in Picton Park, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland painted a series of works based on this estuary at this time including Form over River, 1971-2 (Tate, London). Trees on a River Bank appears to combine elements from two different areas on the estuary: the left curvilinear tree form (also seen in Form over River) is by the shore at Picton whereas the central tree form is from the private beach at Benton Castle more than three miles down river. Sutherland's work of this time concentrates on the lower parts of the trees, their trunks and roots. Here, the twisted and intertwined shapes exposed by the river's erosion of their soil, form a complex web of space across the painting, bringing the density and depth of the woodland right to us. Sutherland wrote: 'the trees are eroded by the tide and wind and they are small oaks, really; I suppose you would call them dwarf oaks. They have the most extraordinarily beautiful, varied and rich shapes which detach them from their proper connotation as trees. One does not think of them so much as trees, more as figures; they have the same urgency that certain movements of figurescan have in action' (Graham Sutherland, The Listener, XCVIII, 1997, p.231, quoted in Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1982, p.157). Unlike the early oils, which were often densely worked, in Trees on a River Bank, Sutherland applies the paint thinly allowing the colours to bounce back off the white of the primed canvas and imbuing the whole with a glowing and poetic light. This new approach to colour is often seen as the result of the increasing amount of time Sutherland spent in the South of France from 1947, eventually buying a house in Menton, near Nice, in 1955.
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