Artist Profile: Craigie Aitchison

Born and raised in Edinburgh, painter and screen-printer Craigie Aitchison (1927-2009) is well known for his simple, colorful portraits, still lifes, landscapes and, especially, crucifixions. The son of the great Scottish lawyer and Labour politician Lord Aitchison, Aitchison studied law at Edinburgh and Middle Temple before reversing course and enrolling at the Slade School of Fine Art. Although drawn again and again to the Scottish landscape, he split his time between London and Sienna.

Italy’s magnificent cathedrals and the bright colors of its Renaissance painting were an early and enduring influence on Aitchison’s approach. Yet even when treating religious themes there is a whimsy or joyous innocence conveyed through the simplicity of form, composition and color. By accounts of his friends and interviewers, Aitchison maintained his father’s commitments to justice and religious tolerance. He believed in God and valued the biblical texts, without being a regular churchgoer. At various points he attributed his interest in the crucifixion to an early viewing of a Dali crucifixion and to a reaction against an art teacher’s anti-religiousness. Regardless, he considered the Passion to be a paradigmatic story of injustice and felt it deserved continual revisitation.

At the Shadows of the Divine exhibition we are showing Aitchison’s etching Pink Crucifixion (2004). On first glance the image is almost obscenely playful: a crudely drawn Christ crucified is centered over a bright pink monochrome background. The flatness of the print adds to a sense of emotional superficiality, as if the artist were completely ignorant of the weight of his subject matter. But on closer examination Christ’s suffering body is rendered sympathetically, even grotesquely. The brutal minimalism of his tilted profile–eye wide open–conveys deep sadness and pain; the bent arm and missing leg signal an act of utter dehumanization.

The contrast between the playful and cruel elements of the piece might suggest a cynical take on the commercialization of the crucifix, or more broadly of the superficiality of much of Christianity. In light of Aitchison’s broader corpus of work, however, a more hopeful reading emerges. Aitchison’s work celebrates the wonder of the material: of land, animals, and people. His whimsy remains on this side of frivolity as it is penetrated by a wonder before the mystery of life–even in the midst of suffering, as in his crucifixions or in his etchings of the “ascension” of his beloved terrier (one in dark grey, one in pink). In the Pink Crucifixion, then, the unflinching identification of Christ’s pain does not negate the image’s immediate playfulness. Whatever his personal beliefs, Aitchison here captures something of the Christian mystery of cross and resurrection, of the joy that lies on the other side of suffering for injustice.

Read Anthony Gardener’s 2003 interview before a showing of Aitchison’s works at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003. Artist Peter James Field discusses his interview with Aitchison on religious art in a secular age. Obituaries from the Guardian and the Telegraph. A guide to Aitchison’s work online from ArtCyclopedia.

Have you seen the Shadows of the Divine exhibition yet? What did you think of Aitchison’s piece? What do you think it and the other pieces can contribute to peacemaking efforts today? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Image Credit: Craigie Aitchison, The Pink Crucifixion (2004) exhibited at Shadows of the Divine (photograph by Brian Fischbacher).

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