Respect due

Robin Baillie reviews the first ever retrospective of Scottish painter William Crozier and discovers talent as well as technical brilliance in his work.

An enigma lies at the heart of this exhibition. William Crozier. the most promising artist of his generation. died in 1930 at the age of 37. We will never know how big an impact he may have had on the development of Scottish painting, had he lived longer. and as a result his work has the air of an unsolved mystery. This feeling pervades the paintings themselves. with landscapes presenting themselves. half-dead. half-alive. as if on the dissecting slab ready for inspection.

Born in Edinburgh in 1893 (and ofthe same generation as his fellow Edinburgh art students. William MacTaggart. William Gillies. Anne Redpath and William Geissler) he began his studies in 1916 at the relatively late age of 22. His father was a print compositor, but the true family inheritance was the incurable disease of haemophilia. For Crozier, this meant prolopged periods of confinement in bed during which he read widely and became fluent in French and Italian. Painting slowed life to his pace and provided a perfect foil for his exacting eye.

We are met by his interrogatory gaze in the

~watercolour Self-Portrait. 1929—30. as we enter the

exhibition. He hunches like a wound spring in a chair in his bare studio in Frederick Street. Addressing us from behind his boffin-type glasses. his look is quizzical and intent, his posture cramped as if he was responding to a particularly knotty compositional problem in one of his works. It was in the same studio that he suffered the fall that led to a cerebral haemorrhage and to his untimely death later that year

The early work of his student days ranges from soft, impressionistic watercolours to the hardening design of Thistle Street Mews. 1923. This is the view from his studio and Crozier responds to the dramatic angles of gables and tiled roofs with an equally organised composition.

This underlying structural sensibility allowed the young artist to take up the quasi-Cubist theories of his French teacher. Andre Lhote. The RSA’s Carnegie‘s Travelling Scholarship was awarded to Crozier in 1924. allowing him to spend long periods studying in Paris and visiting Flanders. Provence and especially Italy. In Tuscany he studied the Italian Primitives of the early Renaissance and applied his newly found Cubist geometricism to the white washed hill villages. Italian Town. 1927. forms an articulated mosaic of tones and planes as a street rolls away down a steep hill in front of us.

Crozier was the most intellectually orientated of the Edinburgh School and his early attempts to create an analytical style can be dry. Even so Rue Medan. Paris. and The Quarry Estaminet, both bring out the organic structural qualities of nature and human architecture. the latter placing a house in front of the geological fissures and shelves of a shadowy quarry.

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Italian landscape. 1927. takes even more risks in a warm, spatially aware union of painterliness and sculptural construction.

It would be hard to judge Crozier's qualities from these continental scenes alone. and it is in his powerful scenes of Edinburgh that we find his true measure. Edinburgh from Salisbury C rags. 1927. reveals the great primeval spine of the Old Town pitching up to the black crown of the castle rock. Here the Cubist fundamentals of plane. angle, edge and shadow meet their match in the physical audacity ofthe architecture. His eye for relieftranscends any picturesque qualities associated with the capital and is worthy of comparison with Cezanne in its grandeur. A similarly back-door view of the city from lnverleith brings out this structural undertow. with broken and patchy paintwork in the foreground expelling any hint ofsentimentality. It is this hard edge, this severity, that was lost from Scottish painting following Crozier‘s death.

One room in the exhibition is given over to the artist‘s contemporaries and provides suitable

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comparisons. But only Peploe‘s colour and weight of design match Crozier‘s strength and, in so doing, reveal why he was admired by the young man. Crozier’s subdued palette, deployed in his empty, cemetery-like landscapes, can sometimes produce a dreamy, other-worldly quality not dissimilar to De Chirico. His towns are like the forgotten towns far in the distance of Renaissance masterpieces. This bleached tone may also be the result of Crozier’s preference for winter trips to the Mediterranean due to his poor health.

Perhaps it is Crozier‘s fragile physical state that holds the key to his work. The laying bare ofthe bones of landscape its skeletal nature apparent even in the brittle and bony trees which he loved depicting forms the basis of his painting. Surely this impulse might have been spurred by an awareness of his own condition. The drained. pale light and the shadow constantly returning with its glimpses of mortality. bring that awareness to the canvasses. And possibly it is the invalid's consolation to find comfort in a snow scene. Under snow the earth’s skull is disinterred but at the same time is consoled by its soft white blanket. Hence Edinburgh in Snow. provides the subject of one of his most humane pictures.

An accomplished draughtsman. watercolourist and etcher, Crozier‘s work displays such intensity and concentration that the skills of the late 20th century artist are put to shame. It is difficult for us to look back at this work from our perspective work that found its integrity in technical control and the development of a personal vision.

This exhibition is a well-researched and (almost) comprehensive selection of Crozier's work. For those interested in the devel0pment of a modern school of painting in Scotland. the show is essential viewing.

William Crozier l893—l930. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Edinburgh until I 0 July.

The List l9 May-l Jun 1995 59