A JOURNEY OF SELF-FORGETTING
OF SELF-FORGETTING Craigie Aitchison’s work allows us to see through the eyes of a child again.
I VIVIDLY REMEMBER the first time I saw a painting by Craigie Aitchison. It was a reproduction on a postcard of a small Chinese whistle. The card was saturated in deep pink and red with a thin line of turquoise. It was blissful. From that day on I sought his work out and became familiar with his subjects: still lifes, landscapes, portraits and crucifixions.
When we look at Aitchison’s most successful paintings we are beholding something that every human being once had – childlike qualities – and which most people have abandoned in the struggle for adulthood. Wordsworth knew this self when he described how we are born trailing clouds of glory. Proust described being transported deep into that green and transparent place when he ate the madeleine dipped in the linden-
blossom tea he remembered from his childhood. This self lives in the magical and joyful world that we inhabit unconsciously in our early life. It is characterised by the most beautiful ability: that is, to give way to a mood of play that is self-
forgetting. Paul Klee described this world as the wellspring of his work. That is the world to which one must return in order to enter Aitchison’s pictures. This is their magic and their appeal. They are refreshing, not because they let us escape from reality, but because they take us into a deeper and more real place: to the sources of life and imagination, to the source of eternal youth.
The world that we glimpse through Aitchison’s pictures is only accessible to him – and, through him, to us – because he has had the presence of mind to stay with his own way of playing and seeing. This is often the hardest work any artist ever does. It is the difference between the competent many and the remarkable few.
Aitchison gives the impression of being a gentle person. However, where it matters he is immovably strong. No-one has ever been able to prevent him from maintaining his vision or to shake his belief in his way of seeing things and of making work. He manages the world rather than letting the world manage him. He went to art school and took the courses he needed and avoided those that would have harmed him. In Charles Morgan’s novel The Judge’s Story the wise judge is asked for advice by a young woman. Rather than tell her what to do, he says, “There are those with whom your voice is muffled and those with whom your voice is clear. By this rule your life; God is not dumb!” In the art world from which Aitchison emerged and in the places where he learned, there were supporters and opponents. His genius partly lies in knowing who to listen to and who to ignore. He is never cool or hard but he is strongly himself. Kandinsky said that Gabriella Münter had a gift that needed not teaching but protecting. Aitchison’s way of seeing has something of that quality too.
ART HISTORY ACKNOW-LEDGES that artists influence each other. I suspect, however, that there is something much more important in an artist’s biography: that is, that artists recognise each other – they recognise who belongs to their family. This recognition is about meeting work that gives the artist confidence in his or her way of seeing. I could not say whom Aitchison was influenced by, but I know other artists who, I sense, belong to the same family. These artists are united by three essential qualities. First, they have colour magic. This cannot be taught: it is a gift, like perfect pitch. In the hands of these artists, something happens to paint that is alchemical: it begins to have a life of its own. Second, they simplify what they see to essentials; and third, these artists inspire optimism. This family includes Macke, Klee, Münter, Franz Marc, Chagall, Redon, Milton Avery, Rothko and Matisse. They are immune from fashion and cynicism and they are protected from their detractors because their peculiar mix of colour and poetry intoxicates us and we love them unconditionally.
The gallery owner and painter Helen Lessore, who was Aitchison’s first dealer, was asked in 1965 to come and talk to students at an art school in London. She refused with the following explanation: “The whole art world has become like a maison d’haute couture – it is even more grossly commercial than it used to be even thirty years ago, even fifteen years ago – more superficial, more vulgar, more greedy… I cannot stand up and tell the students what they must do to be ‘successful’; nor have I the heart … to stand there and exhort these hopeful young things to take the martyr’s road.”
It would be interesting to hear what Lessore would say about the art world and the art schools of today! My interest in Aitchison’s originality and success has at the heart of it the questions posed by Lessore’s despair. He seems to have passed through this frightening world intact and to have succeeded in communicating to enough people so that he has a place in the mainstream of the contemporary art world. His poetic and original vision and the optimism that he succeeds in expressing suggest that there is a way to be yourself which is beyond fashion, and a coherent way of looking at the world which would suggest we have reason to rejoice in our existence despite its many struggles.