Defaced Craigie Aitchison portrait now on show at the National Gallery
As far as acquisitions go, buying a work of art that has been defaced by the artist himself is certainly unique, but there you have it, nothing is out of the ordinary in the wonderful world of art.
The National Portrait Gallery in London has purchased a painting by the late Scottish artist Craigie Aitchison, which was executed in the late fifties. The self-portrait was spoiled by the notoriously aloof painter after a visitor to his studio remarked that it was a flattering depiction.
Perceiving this to be an affront, Aitchison duly responded by slashing the canvas, and, in spite of this act of self-sabotage, kept the painting regardless. We can only wonder why. We all regret things and sometimes scars are important to remind us of the past.
But, over time, conscious that something beautiful had been ruined, Aitchison, who was very uncomfortable dealing with other people or receiving plaudits for his work, was convinced by Martin Wyld, head of conservation at the National Gallery, to let him restore it.
Though not absolutely. Again, it came down to the wounds. Scars are not something we intend to sustain, physical or physiological, but, over the course of life they do occur, and so inform our existence.
So, the painter said repair the damage to the canvas, but do not hide the lacerations. While it was never part of the original idea behind the portrait, the painting as it now stood would almost be lacking without the cuts. It was pure emotion.
“Craigie Aitchison was a highly distinctive artist whose singular vision was rooted in an acute sensitivity to colour and subtle implications of meaning,” observed Paul Moorhouse, curator of twentieth century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.
“We are delighted that this fascinating self-portrait survived the artist’s momentary destructive doubts and can now be seen by future generations.”
Aitchison was best known for his work surrounding the image of the crucifixion, which was something that near-enough haunted his entire professional life. He saw what happened to Jesus on the cross, regardless of whether he was the Son of God or a mere mortal, to be an important story, perpetually relevant.
“The crucifixion is the most horrific story I’ve ever heard,” he once said. “They were all ganging up against one person. As long as the world exists one should attempt to record that. It was so unfair.”
It is hard to describe his unique style, and for want of a better word, perhaps it is fair enough to refer to it as modestly unique. There was an innocence to his paintings in their simplicity of colour and form, almost childlike, but what distinguished them from an adolescent’s doodle was their ability to convey feeling.
The self-portrait is now on show at the gallery.
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