Edinburgh Printmakers where I make my prints, describes its gallery as presenting ‘a year round programme of inspiring, innovating and challenging exhibitions.’ It is rather like going on an internet dating site and describing yourself as spectacularly good looking and absolutely wonderful in bed. These things are not conducive to self-evaluation. But I don’t blame whoever wrote the piece. Suggesting that you are not challenging in the current visual art zeitgeist, is tantamount to saying that you are not serious.

Yet what, in this context, does challenging actually mean? Let us look at one or two contemporary art works that might be considered iconic, another ubiquitous word in today’s art-world lexicon.

Rachel Whiteread’s cast of the interior of a house reversed the actuality of the building, making solid what had been previously empty. It was widely popular. Several years ago, the floor of the basement gallery in the Royal Scottish Academy building was completely covered by a shallow tray, which when filled with oil, reflected the interior and entirely changed perception of the space. Again, the public reception was enthusiastic. People have delighted in seeing a Parisian bridge, amongst other things wrapped in fabric. Each of these art works focuses on one particular thing.

Verisimilitude has had a new lease of life in the latest art. At one time the archetypical philistine statement occurred when a member of the laity was awestruck by an ultra-realistic painting and opined ‘ It’s just like a photograph and it’s all done by hand.’ Yet, the former puppeteer, Ron Mueck, produces very life like figures with all the details of blemishes and body hair and transforms them by dramatic changes of scale. There was even a section in the exhibition I saw in Edinburgh, once I had endured the slow-moving queue, where the craft of his simulating techniques were demonstrated. The ultimate in this type of naturalism may be the exhibit in a museum of modern art in Tasmania which imitates the digestive system and produces excrement indistinguishable from the real thing.

A writer in The Spectator pointed out that the public had taken the Brit artists so much to heart that they (Damien and Tracy) could be recognised by their first names. The Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, considered Andy Warhol’s greatest achievement was ‘to teach America to feel comfortable with its dumbness… to love shopping, to drink coke, to adore Disney, to worship Graceland Elvis.’

Perhaps it is a good thing that late 20th century and early 21st century iconic art is not elitist, but why should it be described as challenging? The word in this context can’t surely mean the same as in the phrase ‘the north face of the Eiger is challenging’ or even in the sense that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a challenging read.


BESTS 2: the best ending for a poem.

I’ve been learning by heart two poems by Yeats. I don’t intend to bore my friends by reciting them; no more than four lines appropriately inserted is acceptable in social contexts. It is a question of memory exercise and enriching my mental iplayer so that I can recite them silently when I want some superior entertainment.

The two poems from Last Poems are, WHY SHOULD NOT OLD MEN BE MAD? and MAN AND THE ECHO. In both, Yeats reflects on the lives of people he has known and those familiar with the poet’s life will get the references, though neither poem depends on that knowledge. Yeats laments in the first poem that:

            Some have known a likely lad
            That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
            Turn to a drunken journalist:
            A girl that knew all of Dante once
            Lived to bear children to a dunce:

and more. He suggests that it is unlikely that any instance can be found of a life that fulfils its early promise. The poem ends with a variant of the first line and title, ‘Know why an old man should be mad.’

But it is in the poem MAN AND THE ECHO, full of quotable lines that have often been quoted, that make me put it in the best ever category. The poem is an echo poem, that playful form where stanzas’ endings are followed by a homonym e.g. this
from George Herbert’s HEAVEN:

            O who will show me the delights on high?
                                                                  Echo. I.
            Thou Echo thou art mortal all men know
                                                                 Echo. No.

But there is nothing ludic about Yeats’ poem. He employs no word games and the Echo repeats the words ending the first two stanzas exactly. Yeats has questions to answer before he can rest in peace:

            Did that play of mine send out
            Certain men the English shot?
            Did words of mine put too great strain
            On that woman’s reeling brain?

Could he have done something to save the country house Coole Park? Yeats must make his own Last Judgment before he can ‘Sink at last into the night.’ Significantly, to the question in the last stanza, ‘Shall we in that great day rejoice?’ the Echo makes no answer.

He begins to speculate on what that might mean but changes tack resulting in what I judge to be the best ending to any poem that I know. We are reminded, as has been explained at the beginning of the poem, that Yeats is ‘At the bottom of a pit / That broad noon has never lit,’ consulting a rock with oracular powers. He becomes confused and loses his theme:

            Up there some hawk or owl has struck
            Dropping out of sky or rock,
            A stricken rabbit is crying out
            And its cry distracts my thought.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival Show

I am currently showing some of my prints during the Edinburgh Fringe through until the end of September. Most of them are recent prints, but as I'm giving a series of four talks about my technique, I have included one print that I did nearly 50 years ago.

Select Cuts: The Relief Prints of Robert Crozier is showing at the Gallery at McNaughton's Bookshop, Haddington Place, Leith Walk, Edinburgh, Tues-Sat, 11am - 5pm. Talks by the artist will take place on 2, 9, 16, 23 August at 5pm.


The thing about designating something the best,/ placing it well ahead of the rest,/ though others are bound to contest/ while alternative choices are pressed,/ is that value judgments can often score/ and stock up our mind’s aesthetic store. Discussing Piero della Francesca the other day with a friend, I referred to a Piero in the Malatesta Temple in Rimini, identifying it as the one with the hound. My friend responded that she loved that dog. Canine portraiture is something of a joke for the current art world and I am not a dog lover myself, but I have to admit that they feature repeatedly in great works of art, coming second as an animal presence only to the horse. The best painter of dog portraits is certainly Stubbs. His painting, Poodle on a Punt, would certainly be on my short list of the best dogs in visual art. But first prize would go to the hounds in the Unicorn Tapestries at The Cloisters in Manhattan which is an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum. The subject of art bests is something that I will return to in future. I am always interested in other people's choices so I give a little round up of a few here. Netherlandish painters in the 17th century began to put great effort into facial expression. Frans Hal’s so called Laughing Cavalier is only really a smiling gentleman but more extreme and momentary face movement can be found in his work, also in the paintings of Adrien Brouwer e.g. The Bitter Draught, and Rembrandt. For my best facial expression in art, though, I would return to the Unicorn Tapestries. The suggestive look on the face of the ‘ treacherous young woman’, sometimes identified as Eve, from the right-hand fragment of the lost Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn, is unbeatable. Matisse is the first painter that comes to mind when thinking of the best dancing figures in art. There is the great blue and red canvas from the Hermitage and the Paris Dance Mural, which with all its sketches and versions, has a position in the master’s oeuvre equivalent to Guernica in Picasso’s output. Yet it is to another craft rather than painting that I go for my award. My winner in the best dancer section goes to two small Roman, mosaic figures in the Vatican, Pio-Clementine Museum. The best of all is the woman who skips away from a musician with a double pipe and some sort of foot organ. The captions on the reproductions in the little Scala publication, Ancient Rome, Life and Art, that I have before me, suggests that they are clothed in transparent veils. Given the Roman taste for orgy and spectacle, that is possible but I suspect the artist was just showing the movement of the limbs under the dresses and he does it wonderfully.

Coburg House Exhibition

I have just taken down my recent solo show of paintings. It hasn’t made me rich but I have been more fortunate than I might have expected. Artists, these days, often say that they are painting only for themselves. This can be a statement of integrity, suggesting that they are not selling out to easy commercial options. Yet there is nothing like finding that other people appreciate the works that you have tried to make worthy of repeated viewings, and are willing to pay reasonable sums for the privilege. Coburg House Art Studios and Gallery, where I held my exhibition, is a particularly artist-friendly place, administered sympathetically by John Gibson, an engineer who has gradually developed the building floor by floor. His current project concerns the recently vacated top storey where extra studios are under construction and a roof garden envisaged. Around seventy artists and crafts people work here. The façade of the complex has something of the look of a small art deco cinema but is, in fact, a former industrial building. The non-profit making gallery opens off the street and is on two levels. It is formed from a loading bay where lorries would have backed in with their platforms abutting on the upper part for easy transference of goods. The space is simply styled with exposed girder frame and brickwork to dado level in the first section. It makes an elegant exhibition space without a hint of tweeness. I found it well suited to my work, consisting of canvases of various sizes. My largest piece (125 x 130cm) was comfortably hung with some companions in the lower section, which could, if need be, accommodate much larger work. The bulk of my show was of paintings with one dimension approximately a metre and these fitted well into the upper gallery, while an aisle on the same level running back above one side of the lower part, was ideal for small pieces. When I had my first solo show of paintings and sculpture in Edinburgh, an art critic wrote that ‘Robert Crozier grips your lapels and stands on your toes the moment you open the door of the New 57 Gallery.’ It was a very crowded show. Today, a young artist could display a significant collection of his or her works with much more breathing space at Coburg House.
But back in 1970 you did get reviewed. Now, outside the large public venues you have little hope. Critics in the main news sheets only write about sensation and celebrity, even when they disapprove of them. However, if not exactly on the way out, newspapers are becoming much less important. I believe artists should set up their own cyberspace site and review each others’ work. Perhaps, the artist community at Coburg House Studios could join with others and undertake that project for Edinburgh.

I pulled a painting out to trash/ and was surprised to find it pleased./ Not for the for the first time, I had the wish/ that paintings could be stored on micro-fiche.

I have been preparing for my first solo show of paintings since 2002. Entitled In the City, it opens on 25th May and runs until 7th June and is to be in the Coburg House Gallery, Leith. It is a fine space that eschews the gift shop atmosphere that infects so many private galleries and is more like something you might come across in New York rather than in bourgeois Edinburgh. To get a good look at my new work, I cleared hanging space on my studio walls. This meant, in turn, sorting out the storage racks which I have constructed in a box room, a task exacerbated by work arriving back from my son’s flat as he is relocating to Shanghai. I have had to make some firm decisions. I find the paintings that don’t quite work but contain something interesting that I might return to, but probably won’t, a recurring problem. This time, I have been ruthless. I have been wielding the Stanley knife and find the noise it makes quite pleasing, as canvas is shredded for the bin. Other works are reprieved but cannot claim their former liebensraum: acrylics are rolled up and oils removed from their stretchers, stapled to a thin strip of wood and hung like clothes in a wardrobe. For quite a few years, I have put more effort into printmaking. Prints can be stored in a plan chest and they are easier to sell. There are more exhibiting possibilities and younger people buy them. Yet painting remains my first love and I was surprised to come across a few pieces I had forgotten ever producing that, for some reason, I have never exhibited. Although their approach differs from my recent work, they suit my urban theme and I am tempted to include them in my show. If I do this, I will be further departing from current trends. Exhibitions today, if indeed they are so untrendy as to consist of flat rectangles, tend to be made up of work of roughly the same size, identically framed and rigidly organised. I will be unable to do this. I have produced paintings of varying sizes and framing them, I have found that small works require different treatment from larger ones. In some ineffable way, the frame of a small piece must form part of the composition that extends to its outer edges. The frames of larger works, or mounted prints or drawings, merely cut them off from their surroundings. I sometimes wonder though, if the buyer of a work from one of these elegant contemporary exhibitions, doesn’t find when the work is isolated, he or she has only a tiny bit of a composition, which was in fact, the whole exhibition.

Has Hockney lost form?

It is said that painting is an old man’s art. Goya’s final period, the black paintings, and all those great, late self portraits by Rembrandt would seem to support the theory. Yet, like test batsmen, painters can also lose form. One of the best - or should that be worst? - examples is Corot. He started his career with some very impressive classical landscapes in the manner of Claude and Poussin then graduated to beautiful country scenes with a faultless sense of tone, proto- Impressionist works at least in subject matter. Then, in his final years, his work degenerated. It became infected with a fake, silvery tonality and a sentimental atmosphere. Corot’s best work influenced Pissaro and he too lost form. Mid-career he produced a series of rather grey works and some indifferent pointillist works inspired by his younger contemporaries, only to return to his high standards in his late busy Parisian street scenes painted from high up.

I have been thinking of these ups and downs in painters’ careers because I now have a much fuller idea of the worth of the paintings in Hockney’s Bigger Picture exhibition, after seeing the TV film presented by Andrew Marr. My judgement has not been favourable. All through the programme, I was impressed by the beauty of the Yorkshire landscape, but in the photography of the camera crew. In contrast, the paintings seemed to resemble nothing so much as illustrations in books for young children. The pinks and purples I found truly awful. The impressive work, which I mentioned in my previous blog, was one of the few where they were absent.

There does seem to be a problem with the post-Post- Impressionist landscape. The contemporary painter neither wishes to produce a photographic rendering of a scene nor to compete with the French Impressionists. Something has to be delivered that is true to the theme and personal. A switch to a bright palette is no answer. A whole gang of Scottish artists deal in bright reds and oranges, as false to their subjects as Corot’s silver or Hockney’s purples. Paul Nash had successes with war-damaged territory, and others have found new imagery in industrial landscape. William Gillies could still succeed with more pastoral work by bringing out the pattern in border landscape but retaining formal strength through accurate draughtsmanship. However, if the show I saw a few weeks ago at the Scottish Gallery, presumably of late work, is anything to go by, he too lost form. He adopted the favourite tool of the truly awful croute-producer, the painting knife, which destroyed the qualities of his best work.

My Difficulties with Pope's Verse

Of all the pieces that appear in ‘The Poems of the Week’ spot’ of various journals, the one I most enjoy is in the Sunday Times. This week it was chosen by David Mills and he gave an excerpt from An Essay on Criticism by Pope beginning, “ A little learning is a dang’rous thing.” The accompanying note brought home to me why I have never become fond of reading Pope’s verse. Mills quotes several lines from the poet that have become proverbial, like the first line of his choice: “What oft is thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.” “ To err is human, to forgive divine.” And there are others: “Pride the never-failing vice of fools.” “Stretched on the rack of a too easy chair.”“ The right divine of kings to govern wrong.” etc. But memorability always comes in the single line. The other half of the couplet only seems to exist to shore up its brilliant partner.

Nobody would suggest that Hilaire Belloc is in anyway Pope’s equal, but his wit, such as it is, comes in complete couplets i.e. in verse. Thus they are easily remembered: “When I am dead, I hope it will be said: / His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.” “ I’m tired of love I’m still more tired of Rhyme. / But money gives me pleasure all the time.” “I am a sundial, and I make a botch / Of what is done far better by a watch.” Admittedly Pope’s epigram, On the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness, “I am his Highness’ dog at Kew; / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” is also easily remembered. It is the only piece of his verse as distinct from individual lines, that I can quote.

My experience of reading Pope’s contemporary couplet-spinner John Dryden is very different. I find I can recite chunks of his masterpiece Absalom and Achitophel without having made any conscientious effort to commit them to memory. The opening six lines of the poem I know by heart and a dozen or so from the famous characterisation of Buckingham, if not always absolutely word perfectly: “ A man so various that he seemed to be / Not one butall mankind’s epitome: / Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong; / Was everything in starts, and nothing long; \ But, in the course of one revolving moon, \ Was chymist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon: \ then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,\ Besides a thousand freaks that died in thinking, / Best madman, who could every hour employ / With something to wish or to enjoy! / Railing and praising were his usual themes, / And both to show his judgment in extremes: / So over violent or over civil / That every man with him was God or Devil,”

Works by Pope that do give me pleasure, are in a little, well annotated textbook, Imitations of Horace, which I see I must have picked up second hand for 40p. My favourite piece within it, is An Imitation of the sixth satire of the Second book of Horace. I can quote the opening six lines of this from memory, which may seem to contradict what I have written above. The poem starts: “I’ve often wished that I had clear / For life, six hundred pounds a year, / A handsome House to house a Friend, \ A River at my garden’s end, \ A Terras-walk, and half a Rood / Of Land, set out to plant Wood.'' In fact these lines are not by Pope. The first 132 lines of the poem are by another couplet addict, Jonathan Swift. Pope finished the piece with the famous fable of the town and country mouse.

Interestingly, these lines are not by Pope. The first 132 lines of the poem are by another couplet addict, Jonathan Swift. Pope concluded the piece with the famous fable of the town and country mouse.

Hockney's New Show

For the second time within a few days, I am writing about an exhibition I haven’t seen. There has been much speculation about Hockney’s stature since the opening of his landscape show at the RA. Is he our greatest living painter as some have claimed? Andrew Lambirth on the contrary, suggests in The Spectator, that ‘this exhibition abundantly demonstrates, Hockney is not a great painter.’ His former teacher laments that he has become a decorator.

What is greatness anyway? Some time ago, a journalist suggested that Hockney was not a Mozart, more of a Cole Porter. Well. Taking his music and lyrics together, Cole Porter is great in my book: his songs have survived the outdated musicals with a life of their own. And if we are to have ‘a greatest living painter’ what is the opposition? Lambirth suggests Kossoff and Auerbach who use ‘paint in an inventive and interesting way’. The last thing I would attribute to this duo is inventiveness. I agree with John McEwan who called them Bombergian pretenders whose ‘heaps of paint, the thickness meant to indicate the depth of their feeling, merely disguises their conventionality.’ It is Hockney, throughout his career, who has been notably inventive, depicting the modern world as no painter has done previously. If not a Mozart, he may be more of a Stravinsky. In a recent production of that composer’s opera, his sets, designed some time ago, were said to have stolen the show.

I do have some doubts about what I have seen reproduced from Hockney’s latest show. I tend to think that some of the work is over-scaled. The subject Wolgate Wood, which might not be best as small as Hobbema’s famous Avenue, would hardly seem to justify an assemblage of six largish canvasses. The words garish, gaudy and even ghastly have come to mind about some of the pieces. Is the crude colour only due to newspaper reproduction? But this one group of paintings is never going to affect the status of Hockney’s lifelong achievement. Charles Pulsford, who was the only inspirational teacher I came across during my time at Edinburgh College of Art, used to say that if you weren’t capable of producing a bad painting, you weren’t going to produce a good one either. What I think he meant by this maxim is that boldness and willingness to experiment is vital. One work I have seen printed, has assured me that Hockney hasn’t lost his former magic. It is entitled The Arrival of Spring in Wolgate and shows leaves coming out on a stunted tree. It is not fractured by being formed from several canvasses, so I assume it is not massive. I check the text to see if there is any indication of size and find it is an ipad drawing.

Assessing Edward Burra

Apart from making myself bankrupt, I wouldn’t get any work done if I insisted on travelling to every exhibition that I might want to see. An Edward Burra collection at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, certainly interested me, all the more so since a TV presentation made me doubt the severe judgment I had made about this artist. This was that he had produced three superb works, one of which was in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, but that the rest of his work fell below this high standard.

I contemplated at the very least buying a catalogue of the exhibition. However, after the frustration of a few unanswered calls to Pallant House, I put off the purchase. When, a few days later, I was passing the Central Library I popped up to the fine art section to see if they intended to order the book. They did and I was offered the first borrowing.

The book is now with me and I am beginning to revert to my former opinion. The three works which I rate highly are: Issy Ort’s, the Scottish National Gallery, Silver Dollar Bar, York City Gallery and one of Burra’s rare oil paintings The Snack Bar, the Tate. What seems to me to go wrong in so many of his other pieces, is that he reverts to mechanical modelling and space-filling detail that brings him nearer to the likes of Beryl Cook. It’s a kind of laziness and it’s emphasised when a George Grosz watercolour is reproduced alongside Burra’s paintings. In Grosz’s German work, there are never lapses of technique or imagery.

Burra has paintings like Minuit Chanson and Zoot Suits that come near to his best. And the landscapes, many of which are new to me, have their successes. But here too. there are disappointments. One such work. English Countryside, shows a road going over low, undulating hills. There is a band of fields of bare earth of a red/orange hue in the middle of the work. Through this is a sequence of delicately formed light-coloured pylons. The flanking fields are either light green or of dark foliage. The tiny silhouette of a plane is seen rising from an airport over the horizon. This might have been a masterpiece if Burra had only put into the landscape the sort of sharp drawing that holds together William Gillies’ border landscapes. Similarly, Burra shows fine unexplored imagery in paintings of traffic-clogged country roads. Waldemar Januszczak in a favourable review of the Pallant House exhibition, alludes to Burra’s Thomas the Tank Engine lorries. It is an accurate observation and damning. Surely Burra could have found a better way to depict his heavy traffic.

In the end, I was glad I didn’t buy the catalogue. Instead of sitting down to the delight of leafing through reproductions of works that I could admire unreservedly, I would have feelings of frustration and sadness. I cannot think of any other artist that brings out in me these emotions.