Magazine article The Spectator

Simply Brilliant

Magazine article The Spectator

Simply Brilliant

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 3 Simply brilliant Craigie Aitchison Royal Academy, until 9 November

This long-overdue Aitchison celebration comes in two parts - a retrospective of the paintings in the RA's Sackler Galleries and a selection of prints and drawings available for sale in the informal setting of the Friends' Room. Both are stunning, as his many fans would expect; but just how stunning may surprise even them. The paintings have never looked more beautiful, their autumn reds, yellows, mauves and umbers highlit by dark blue walls. And in whatever medium, an Aitchison, invariably as pared in design as it is flamboyant in colour, is rich in dualities: bold/gentle, abandoned/restrained, joyful/sad, novel/traditional, eccentric/mainstream. All qualities which can coexist in a single work of several metres or only a few centimetres square.

As Aitchison is a daemonic personality, he has been exhaustively interviewed over the years, so it is a truism to say that his art is his life - the colours of his clothes, the two-tone Triumph Herald, the decoration of his houses (one in London, the other in Italy), his eccentric and exotic friends, his Bedlington terriers. Should you not know him, be assured it is all in the pictures: the colours he wears; the favourite two-tone division; the still lives of knick-knacks; the portraits of friends and models, white or black; the Bedlingtons; the triangular silhouette of Holy Island, first seen as a child during summer holidays on Arran, which so often forms the background to his Crucifixions and other works.

William Coldstream, principal of the Slade during Aitchison's time as a student, once said: 'It's terribly difficult to know a lot about oneself.' Many of us would surely agree, and also with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that we are as many people as we meet. Aitchison appears untouched by such uncertainty. He came to painting comparatively late, having first studied for the bar, arriving at the Slade with a dog at his heels and his artistic course already set. His contemporaries recall that there was nothing to teach him. He disagrees. He cites how much he learned from Coldstream and others: that if the position of the eyes is 'right' everything else falls into its proper place; that the lower lip always appears lighter than the upper lip - a notable feature in his portraits of black sitters. It was also a scholarship from the Slade which sent him to Italy and opened his eyes to the early Renaissance masters he still admires (Piero above all), painters who convey spiritual purity through serene design. Nonetheless, the earliest paintings at the Academy, dating back to the late 1950s, show that in subject, feeling and technique nothing essential has changed; only his love of colour has become more boldly stated. …

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