Painting a World That Is Forever Young

Craigie: The Art of Craigie Aitchison

By Andrew Gibbon Williams

Canongate,120 pp., 25

The paintings of Craigie Aitchison (born in Scotland in 1926) have all the marks and atmosphere of an idiosyncratic, uncompromisingly personal vision. Even the (apparently) simplest of his still lifes could be the work of no other artist.

Yet at the end of the first book published about this artist, "Craigie: The Art of Craigie Aitchison," by Andrew Gibbon Williams, is the following passage:

"Once, berated by a journalist for the 'too conventional' nature of the subjects he chose to paint, Craigie responded as he so often does, with a disarming piece of common sense: 'Ever since the world began there have been trees and there have been birds sitting on them and artists have painted them.'"

Mr. Williams remarks: "In any age other than our own such an innocent thought would have sounded commonplace."

There is certainly an innocence about Mr. Aitchison's work, as if he - and the world - were still young. It is not the subject matter, but the way in which he looks at it - freshly, subtly transforming what his eyes see and assess with the unashamed oddity of his imagination - that matters.

The unnamed journalist was on the wrong track. "Conventional" is hardly the word for this artist's work. True, birds and trees are often featured in his compositions, but they are more symbols than observed "subjects." And while some of his paintings can be pigeonholed into categories such as still life, portraiture, figure painting, or landscape, the genres of academic painting should be seen as traditional rather than conventional, particularly in a century in which it has sometimes looked as if the truly unconventional thing to do is to paint in a traditional way.

One of Aitchison's preoccupations has been with a traditional Christian theme, the crucifixion, a subject that long ago ceased to interest most serious artists.

Aitchison's exploration of this symbolic event is unconventional by any definition. According to this book, the artist is not a churchgoer, though in his childhood he was taken to a variety of churches. What really made an impression on him, however, was his first trip (with art-student friends) to Italy. Here he encountered not only the light of the Italian landscape but such early Italian masters as Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, and Giotto.

Much less interested in art history than his friends, he had to be persuaded to look at the Piero frescoes in Arezzo. According to Williams, "Piero's fresco cycles ..., both at Arezzo and Borgo San Sepolcro, were to prove a revelation" to Aitchison. By Aitchison's own account, and the words of his fellow student Myles Murphy, Aitchison recognized the importance of Piero "immediately ... and saw no need to linger."

AS profoundly influential as these works may have been, Williams is inaccurate about some key points. There are no fresco cycles by Piero at Borgo (but two of his most remarkable altar pieces). And the description of an Aitchison triptych as "both in form and spirit" harking "back to Fra Angelico with its dive-bombing, haloed angels" is clearly wrong. In Fra Angelico's art, angels are rare, mostly seen in annunciation paintings on the ground; they never "dive bomb."

Williams also fails to mention a device of Aitchison's that does appear in Fra Angelico annunciations - the beam of light, symbolizing the divine reaching into the human realm, that angles from the upper reaches directly toward the Virgin Mary.

In Aitchison's paintings this celestial beam streaks toward the figure of Jesus on the cross - or toward one of the artist's much-loved Bedlington terriers. He paints these sheep-like creatures with a simplicity and affection that avoids falling into sentimentalism. The same balance is evident in his ability to paint the crucifixion and yet avoid making it solely torture and anguish with no possible resurrection. When he brings the two subjects together - his dogs and his crucifixions - he does so with a sincerity as complete and heartfelt as the strange juxtaposition is unorthodox.

Aitchison's art comes close to the religious (even in his landscapes and still lifes), and yet he apparently talks of it in almost entirely formal terms. No doubt it is the order and clarity of his compositions; their balance, measure, and space; and above all the luminosity of his colors - so scrupulously zoned, so softly edged with light - that absorb him as he paints.

Yet there is no escaping the emotions stirred by the associative aspects of his paintings and their abstract elements.

Aitchison has suggested that he sometimes wonders whether the abstract elements of a painting - such things as color and form and conjunction and interval - might not alone convey what he feels. He admires (Williams tells us) the geometrical abstractions of Mondrian. And it is clear from his paintings, even if it remains unvoiced, that he was also profoundly aware of certain American painters in the 1950s when he was a student. Williams talks of these generically as "color field" painters (for some reason he does not mention Rothko and Newman by name) who invested color and interval with the most intense, even religious, scope of feeling. Aitchison's debt to them is intrinsic, even if he cannot abandon subject matter or theme as they did.

But he knows that it is often the smallest indication of a subject, positioned with a calculated inevitability within the large areas of color, that can draw the eye and mind. In his unassuming, unemotive, but potently dramatic paintings, less is more.

And what is reduced to an essence, though delicate and minuscule, carries by the power of understatement the greatest significance.

* 'Craigie: The Art of Craigie Aitchison' has been published to coincide with an exhibition of paintings by Aitchison at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, through Sept. 8.

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