Craigie Aitchison 1926-2009


With Basil Jacobs Fine Art, London
Private Collection, Chichester
Private Collection, Bath, by descent


2019, London, Piano Nobile, Craigie Aitchison and the Beaux Arts Generation, 14 Nov. 2019 - 29 Jan. 2020, cat. no. 19


Susan Campbell, Craigie Aitchison and the Beaux Arts Generation, 2019, Piano Nobile Publications, cat. no. 19, pp. 78-79 (col. illus.)
To Aitchison, the crucifixion was a spiritual event rather than a textual one. In his imagination, it played out in a mystical landscape that shimmered between decorative flatness and expansive recessions of depth. When asked if he was religious, he replied: ‘I don’t know what it means. I think if you think you’re religious, it’s a bit conceited.’ His grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, nevertheless, and his parents took him to both Protestant and Roman Catholic church services as a child.

His attitude to religion was complicated further by a scholarship in Italy that Aitchison took in 1955. He was profoundly affected by the fervent cult of devotional imagery which he found there, as well as religious paintings by the likes of Giotto, Fra Angelico and Masaccio. He latterly developed his own collection of religious icons, predominated by small kitsch figurines of St Francis of Assisi, the Virgin and Child and, most numerous of all, Christ on the cross. These images filled his home in Kennington, creating a joyously cluttered atmosphere and providing him with the models for paintings such as this. Though he never studied the detail of these icons, they provided him with a starting place – a composition or a mood without which he could not start work.

Aitchison’s figure of Christ is often depicted without arms, a trope that the artist introduced shortly after his earliest Crucifixion (1958, Private Collection) (fig. 12). He once explained: ‘everybody knows who he is. He doesn’t need arms.’ Aitchison was evidently uninterested by the confines of conventional Christian iconography, preferring to give the crucifixion a numinous poetic meaning of his own, enhanced by resounding planes of saturated colour.

These planes of colour were created with a technique of his own devising. As Helen Lessore explained, ‘His paint has always been extremely thin, scrubbed into the canvas. Often the colour is used pure, but even when mixed it is usually transparent’. Using turpentine as a thinning agent, he reduced his medium to a fine wash of colour. No longer sitting on the surface of the canvas, the paint became one with it, seeming to emanate from the support itself. In this Crucifixion from the early 1970s, the upper half of the canvas is suffused with a deep, throbbing purple. Aitchison would vary the distribution of paint over the surface to create different moments of emphasis, creating in this work a greater saturation of colour around the figure to create a halo-like emanation that activates and intensifies the surrounding space.