Book review: Victoria Crowe by Duncan Macmillan

Crowe did a series of portraits of Jenny Armstrong ' this was the last
Crowe did a series of portraits of Jenny Armstrong ' this was the last
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VICTORIA Crowe was a precociously gifted student and already an accomplished young artist in 1968 when she arrived to teach at Edinburgh College of Art.

Victoria Crowe by Duncan Macmillan

Antique Collectors’ Club, 184pp, £35

In this survey of 45 years of her art, Duncan Macmillan finds striking continuities in recent paintings and works first done in Scotland. The stark near-abstract early landscapes of the Pentlands are recalled in a recent series of winter trees: “It was as though fate had brought her to the landscape that suited her best.” Although later work would be contain many other elements, the Pentland landscape has remained a leitmotif in her work.

An early visit to Russia stirred Crowe’s love of icons which go beyond the surface “from a physical space to a mental space”. Macmillan sees affinities between Crowe and artists like Gwen John and Caspar David Friedrich who find the transcendent in the mundane. He identifies the essential quality of Crowe’s work – the way in which, while acknowledging the fragility of things, she suspends them in a kind of permanence.

He writes movingly about the series of paintings in which Crowe recorded the life of the shepherd, Jenny Armstrong, the subject of the exhibition A Shepherd’s Life at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2000. The paintings marked a friendship between artist and sitter and a journey from life to death. Armstrong remains a persistent presence, even after her death. Crowe amplifies the memorial – a portrait made out of still life – in paintings of the shepherd’s room and the memorabilia left behind.

Crowe made her first formal portraits in the 1980s. That of Winifred Rushforth (1982) was the earliest to be acquired by the Portrait Gallery. The encounter with Rushforth –psychoanalyst and dream therapist– was “the beginning of an interest in dream and its imagery and the related symbolism of myth and archetype within a Jungian framework”. Crowe’s portraiture – an oeuvre now extended to 30 or so works – merits a study of its own.

Tracing Crowe’s artistic development, Macmillan gives due significance to her first visit to Italy in the early 1990s which gave her a store of visual reference, in particular the imagery of 14th- and 15th-century religious painters. “Pictorial space has become a metaphor for memory and her paintings are “somehow extended in time because they exist at once in both past and present”. They are collage-like, “just as remembered images can overlay and intersect each other”.

Her work seemed to be entering a new phase, “moving onto a plateau of achievement”, growing in confidence. Then, in 1994, came the devastating diagnosis of her son’s cancer. He died the following year. There ensued a decade of paintings which Macmillan, in a particularly sensitive reading, sees as “a vehicle for … her anxiety and grief, first as a votive then as a memorial”.

There are haunting images from this period. In one, a tiger moth, translucent and fragile, is drawn to the light of the moon: moonlight shines on the surface of a dark seat and a full-blown flower is about to drop its petals. In another, the artist’s own hand is raised against a dark sky like a votive offering, or a gesture of greeting or farewell to the moon, and a single white tulip shines in the white light. These sad and beautiful pictures “reflect the extraordinary courage with which the artist met her grief and found strength to express it with such restraint and such power”.

Logical space is now often abandoned altogether: there is a freer approach to composition, a use of mixed media, combining collage and prints with painting, and objects “hovering in an indeterminate space”. Macmillan calls this – perhaps surprisingly –her Pre-Raphaelite period. He sums up an often misunderstood position of Ruskin perfectly, and applies it to Crowe: “For Ruskin, the key idea … was that in art, truth, as we see it in pictures, is first of all a quality of the imagination. It reflects purity of feeling. It is not merely a functional relationship to some objective reality. Truth of observation is a vehicle, a test of honesty and a source of wonder, but not the primary object of painting. Independently Victoria Crowe seems to have come to a similar position. For Ruskin … Bellini more than any other artist except Turner, personified his ideal of the balance of imaginative and objective truth. It was therefore perhaps intuitively following Ruskin … that Victoria found her spiritual home in Venice.”

How appropriate that it should be Venice – the city loved by Ruskin and to which he devoted so much of his own creative energy – that is now so central to in Crowe’s life and art.

Writing finally about her most recent paintings, a series of skeletal hazel trees in winter light, Macmillan says: “They really are numinous pictures; they are spiritual landscapes”,.And recalling how he likened the effect of her paintings to “a half remembered piece of music”, it is Schubert’s Wintereisse that seems to echo in the mind when looking at these paintings.

• Julie Lawson is chief curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. An exhibition of Crowe’s work will be held at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in December