Congratulated when one of his pictures was bought by Elton John, Craigie Aitchison had to admit that he had never heard of this person. Few artists in the late 20th century remained so oblivious to the outside world – ignoring fashion, Aitchison painted in a barely changing style for more than 50 years, Yet in every decade his work looked fresh, authentic, contemporary. This first exhibition since his death in 2009 shows 20 works, some not seen before, and will enhance his reputation as a singular, single-minded artist, and an exceptional maker of religious images.
Aitchison’s abbreviated figures, still-life motifs and crucifixions painted flat and stark on brilliantly coloured grounds – midnight blue, sugar pink, saffron yellow – look simple but are sensuous rather than austere, lucid, luminous, and formally satisfying. In “Crucifixion 1”, a pale, skeletal, armless Christ – “everybody knows who he is, he doesn’t need arms” according to Aitchison – is an almost geometric construction, linked to heaven by a beam of light depicted as a golden thread, against a blood-red sky and ochre earth. The composition equally calls to mind Piero della Francesca and Mark Rothko. “Washing Line at Sunset” – hanging socks, trousers, a pink vest – is at once a celebration of the everyday and elegiac, melancholy, absurd. “Dog by Grave”, in emerald grey, is a mystic landscape in the British sublime tradition. “Isle of Arran from the Mainland” is pared down but expressive; the image goes back to Aitchison’s childhood holidays, and also evokes the Scottish colourist tempering of richness with restraint.
Throughout the range of subjects, Aitchison’s purity of vision confers an icon-like intensity, achieved with the lightest of painterly touches. His gallerist Helen Lessore suggested that Aitchison’s compositions were “conceived from the first purely visually – as ideas of colour, proportion, shape and space”, but Aitchison insisted that “they are always of something; they’re not just ‘planes of colour’ or anything posh like that”.
From Thursday to May 12