Crucified Tree Form is one of a series of paintings produced by the artist following a period of grave illness, which had instilled in him a pressing need to paint a crucifixion image (Wollen 2003: 97). In this desolate scene we see body, cross, and tree fused into a 'single, suffering whole' (Ibid, 96–97), in a manner evocatively reflecting the description in Isaiah 53 of the suffering servant, a figure so stricken by afflictions (v.4) that he incites revulsion, scorn, and horror.
The face is blackened and featureless, the arms shattered, the legs a single solid mass embedded in some unspecified, indistinct landscape. The paint is applied in a scumbled, expressionistic manner, and the range of colours is minimal, the lurid yellow background, evoking the putrefaction of death, contrasting starkly with the austere monochrome of the figure. The anachronistic addition of barbed wire deliberately presents the painting in an ambiguous light. One can read it conventionally as a crucifixion: body broken, head bowed, the spikes of the barbed wire resolving into a crown of thorns. Alternatively, it might conjure the ruined landscapes and bomb-blasted trees of the battlefield, or else the mangled corpse of a soldier, entangled in the barbed wire of no-man’s land.
This is not an uncommon analogy to draw: in times of war the crucifixion theme has often become an instrument of social criticism, the religious content perhaps supplanted but perhaps also amplified by the force of the suffering, tortured body immolated on the altar of war. As Isaiah 53 tells us, if the servant suffers and dies—led like a lamb to the slaughter (v.7), cut off from the land of the living (v.8)—he is also exalted. Thus for the modern reader parallels may be drawn with the ennoblement of the fallen soldier in the name of honour, sacrifice, and duty. But so too, as the painting’s subtitle implies, the narrative of the dutiful servant may be open to other, less generous, readings, inevitably souring this particular paean to self-sacrifice.
Wollen, R. 2003. Catalogue of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art (Oxford: Trustees of the Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art)
53Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
8By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
11he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.