A mesmerising retrospective: Victoria Crowe at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, reviewed

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

This mesmerising retrospective takes up three floors of the City Art Centre, moving in distinct stages from the reedy flanks of the Pentland Hills through fractured half-views of Venice and Scotland and into fresh, twilit forests. Mirrors and windows reflect and refract, rigid faces stare from the shadows, animals flit and bare branches twist. It’s 50 years of painting, and half a century of observing, finding, losing and remembering.

Victoria Crowe, born in England but long since adopted by Scotland, is one of our more distinguished painters. She is a respected portraitist but it is her other work that dominates this show, and rightly so. We see the trajectories of an inner life expressed through these paintings.

The exhibition begins with student pieces that establish a fondness for the flattened landscape interrupted by skeletal trees. Soon after, the stage shifts to the Pentland Hills, below Edinburgh, and in shuffles Jenny Armstrong, an elderly shepherdess — neighbour, friend and major figure in Crowe’s work. Armstrong’s final years become fixed on canvas, a sort of longitudinal study that incorporates landscape, interiors and portraiture, a celebration of understated dignity.

‘Large Tree Group’ (1975), probably still Crowe’s best-known work, shows the old woman stepping through snow, dwarfed by the bare, straggling trees beside her. The structural balance of the painting, dissected into multiple horizontal and vertical planes and weighted by a warm, pale-brown sky, is sublime. Other glimpses of this Pentland life — views through windows, glimpsed animals, narrative gatherings of interior objects, darts of warmth in the darkness — would all become familiar tropes in Crowe’s later work.

The second floor of the exhibition is where everything gets more complicated. Here are the strange mid-career works, dominated by splintered compositions, visual inflections of memory and mysterious symbolism.

This shift from direct observation to reflection emerged from a longstanding curiosity about the subconscious that had been energised by commissions to paint the portraits, also seen here, of the psychoanalyst Winifred Rushforth and psychiatrist R.D. Laing. These encounters encouraged Crowe to experiment with visual expressions of abstract concepts, particularly memories and dreams. Increasingly elaborate paintings, rich in poetic schemes of allusion, resulted.

But on top of this came a sudden, catastrophic loss. Crowe’s son, Ben, who had been raised among those well-painted Pentland Hills, died in 1995 at the age of 22. The impact this had on the artist’s painting, on the mother’s thinking, is inescapable.

There is a distinction between the earlier work, on the first floor of the exhibition, and the more recondite paintings that emerged from the turbulence surrounding Ben’s death. On floor two, the approach becomes ever more reflective. The self-portrait that stares out from the scarified surface beside a group of lillies in ‘November Window, Reflecting’ (1996) is utterly numb, rigid, blackened. Elsewhere, we see Ben’s face presented the same way, a shadowed mirror of the mother.

These are obscure and challenging paintings of grief and remembrance, chaotic memories that twitch across the canvas, grasping for explanations in the fragmented patterns of Venetian walls, or visions of fragile nature, barely lit and complicated by layers of arcane symbolism.

And then it changes, again. As the exhibition moves to the third floor and towards the present, the work solidifies and emboldens. The landscapes become more direct, made surprising by startling, violent palette choices rather than overlaid imagery. A clarity of purpose seems to emerge — richer, starker, sleeker. Formal structures and simplicities of subject that recall ‘Large Tree Group’ return.

The sense of spiritual transcendence remains but the altered realities of the later work appear more secure, more rooted in now, than before. The landscape, often set ablaze by the half-light of dusk, is clear again.

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