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Savagery beneath the Surface

Feature

September sees the opening of a new show
of William Crozier’s early paintings at
Piano Nobile. Julia Fischel celebrates
the radical Irish modernist.

‘His Spanish period brought work of
unbridled colour and emotion’

William Crozier (1930–2011) was one of the pre-eminent 20thcentury Irish artists. Presenting a selection of major canvases from across his career, with a particular focus on Crozier’s early paintings from the ’50s and ’60s, the exhibition will show the full range of his expressionistic prowess, distilling primitivism with the brutal rawness of modernity. The show will encompass Crozier’s early landscapes of bleak Essex marshes, his Spanish period with work of unbridled colour and emotion, his harrowing, monumental skeletal works of the late ’60s, culminating in his mature landscapes. Piano Nobile presents this exhibition in collaboration with a major Crozier retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.

Crozier was educated at the Glasgow School of Art (1949–53). On graduating he spent time in Paris and Dublin before settling in London, where he quickly gained great notoriety. By 1961 he was widely seen as one of the most exciting artists in London. Soho was his habitual haunt with fellow raconteurs William Irvine, Robert MacBryde, Robert Colquhoun, and intermittent comrades Francis Bacon, William Turnbull and Eduardo Paolozzi. Profoundly affected by post-war existential philosophy, Crozier consciously allied himself and his work with contemporary European art, and painters such as Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung and Nicolas de Staël. Extended stays in Paris in 1947, 1950, and 1953 were formative: ‘To be in Paris then was to be at the centre of the world. Anyone who was not young in 1949 and who did not sit in the Café Flore or the Deux Magots, where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were as gods, simply cannot appreciate the sheer excitement that enveloped the young of Europe emotionally, physically and intellectually.’

In 1958, Crozier was lent a cottage in Essex and subsequently divided his time between there and London. For him the bleak empty estuaries and the wilderness of the marshes formed a ravaged landscape that symbolised the torment and fear of the post-war condition. In the introduction to Crozier’s 1961 Drian Gallery exhibition, GM

Butcher wrote, ‘if there is one thing that Crozier wishes to get across in all his painting, it is a mood of fear, anxiety, unease. This is his personal reaction to the world as it is – where savagery is only just beneath the surface.’ Crozier spent 1963 in southern Spain, a stay that would prove pivotal to his development as an artist. He became fascinated by Spanish religious festivals such as the Semana Santa and Día de los Muertos, which celebrated death with joyous and colourful carnival. A visit in the ’60s to Bergen- Belsen, the infamous concentration camp outside Hanover, left an indelible mark upon Crozier, and, on his return to London, he began a series of skeletal paintings. Like the Spanish festivals that explore death through exhilarating festivities, these skeletal works are a visceral amalgamation of morbidity, vivacity and celebration.

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