Crucified Tree Form—The Agony by Theyre Lee-Elliott

Theyre Lee-Elliott

Crucified Tree Form—The Agony, 1959, Tempera and gouache on paper, 85 x 65 cm, The Methodist Modern Art Collection, London, LEE/1963, © TMCP, used with permission, www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection

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The Agony of Sacrifice

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jonathan Koestlé-Cate

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' (Wollen 2003: 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.

 

References

Wollen, R. 2003. Catalogue of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art (Oxford: Trustees of the Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art)