AS A teenager, Victoria Crowe discovered a book on Giotto in the library of an Ursuline convent and was irresistibly drawn to early painting, icons, and Italy. As a mother, she responded to the untimely death from cancer of her son, Ben, by determining that, in the face of such loss, “all that was good and eternal and true must somehow be held on to and celebrated for Ben’s sake.”
Crowe is one of Scotland’s leading painters. Her work covers landscape, still lives, portraits, self-portraits, and interiors, while often defying these precise categories. This retrospective features more than 150 paintings, stemming from poised student works that connect with the assured landscapes and portraits of recent years to create a cohesive and unified body of work.
Crowe’s best work is beautifully poetic and allusive, capturing the contemplative fusion of light and form in landscape, particularly the numinous character of trees. Her fullest revelations of mystery, however, are those that combine, on a collage-like basis, natural views with objets d’art and images taken from Renaissance paintings. These paintings draw on Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which enabled him to film the unfilmable. Similarly, by layering several images on the one canvas, Crowe creates new and unexpected images that are more than the sum of their parts, as memory and imagination become unfettered.
© Victoria CroweBlue Snow and Fiery Trees, 2011, by Victoria Crowe
The forms taken by these palimpsests enable Crowe to paint the unpaintable, including the passage of time. The layering of images from differing time periods takes her images out of time so that they become dreams or meditations channelling hope, energy, questioning, despair, and grief. Buried within the many layers are, as Iain Gale has noted, “themes of humanity and mortality which have informed art since the Renaissance”. Lynn Green has rightly suggested that, in common with the icons that Crowe loves, these works “whisper their secrets” and “hint at hidden meanings”. Crowe has described them as being “painted prayers”.
She is inspired by Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Pontormo, and Uccello, incorporating figures from Italian paintings among the layers of her own images. The landscapes of Tuscany and Umbria and scenes from Venice also inspire her. Yet it may be a German artist whose work is most reminiscent of Crowe’s compositions. Caspar David Friedrich was a 19th-century Romantic painter who combined landscape motifs with religious symbolism to contemplate nature while also conveying the spiritual experiences of life. Crowe and Friedrich share the ability to perceive and depict the numinosity of animated trees in wintry landscapes.
These are paintings that take us into an eternity in which all that is good and eternal and true is celebrated and known.
“Victoria Crowe: 50 Years of Painting” is at the City Art Centre, 2 Market Street, Edinburgh, until 13 October. Phone 0131 529 3993. www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk