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March 3, 2013 3:26 pm
From terriers to crucifixions, portraits of friends to birds with surreal colouring, the vision of Scottish artist Craigie Aitchison is unmistakable. A figurative painter whose work often veered close to abstraction, he was instinctive and non-intellectual – yet, as Andrew Lambirth writes in the catalogue essay here, “far from being the naive artist he is sometimes assumed to be”. If anything, his work is marked out by obsession – repetitive, intense, and returning again and again to the same subjects.
This controlled, visionary approach, expressed in luminous, boiled-sweet colours, did not lead to commercial success in the days when anguished free-form abstraction was all the rage. Although Aitchison was always a popular and flamboyant figure in London art circles, it was not until his later life that he found any significant acceptance in the market.
This selling exhibition (with prices up to £200,000) reflects that era. Aitchison’s long-standing patron Sheelagh Cluney acquired the 50 works here between 1978, when the artist was 52, and 2006, three years before his death. (Her own portrait is here, in an unusually severe black/brown monochromatic image complete with threatening crow – it seems to suggest much about their relationship.) It is a rare chance to see so much of the mature work assembled.
A signature image such as “Canary” (1981), with its brilliant orange bird against an elemental landscape of ravishing, Hockneyesque blues, purples and grassy emeralds, brings together all Aitchison’s thematic tropes. (It’s said that he fed his pet canaries carrots to enhance their colouring.) In “Ram and Tree” (1985) the orange canary is back, in a composition that both in title and subject matter carries echoes of the crucifixion themes that were never far from Aitchison’s mind.
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