William Crozier may have been born in Scotland, but the late artist spent many happy years in West Cork. Tina Darb O’Sullivan previews a major exhibition of his work in Skibbereen
GIVEN that William Crozier spent so much time in West Cork, it’s highly appropriate that many of the late artist’s works should be returning to Skibbereen for a major exhibition.
The Glasgow-born artist (1930-2011) is best known for his lyrical landscape paintings, made after moving to West Cork in the mid-1980s. These are the main focus of the exhibition at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, with his earlier, less familiar work dominating a subsequent show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.
Both Uillinn and IMMA approached Crozier’s widow, Katharine Crouan, about mounting an exhibition which resulted in this collaborative effort spearheaded by IMMA’s curator Sean Kissane.
“In the exhibition we wanted to show not just the familiar, beautiful paintings of West Cork but also to introduce Bill’s earlier work and show how the Irish landscapes evolved,” says Crouan.
Crouan is an established figure in the art world in her own right. An art historian and educationalist, she inherited Crozier’s estate of paintings and papers, which she considers “a privilege as well as a responsibility”.
As a young man, Crozier had a zest for travel and after his training at the Glasgow School of Art he travelled extensively throughout Europe. Crouan tells us that he spent 1963 in southern Spain with poet and novelist Anthony Cronin, an experience which proved to be pivotal for the development of his painting.
London was his base of operations for his early career and he counted among his friends artists such as Gillian Ayres, Ralph Rumney, and William Green. He was also acquainted with Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.
MOVE TO WEST CORK
Crozier and Crouan moved to Kilcoe, Ballydehob, in 1983. Although born in Glasgow, Crozier has Irish roots, with his paternal family coming from Ballinderry, Co Antrim. He was known to say that he grew up with a “dual nationality of the heart”.
“He was taken to Ireland frequently as a child and as a teenager he used to hitchhike around the 32 counties,” says Crouan.
While Crozier may have sought an isolated environment in West Cork after enjoying an anonymous existence in the UK, he and Crouan found quite the opposite waiting for them.
“Life in a rural Irish townland isn’t like that,” she says. “Our farming neighbours made us very welcome and never made us feel like outsiders. Bill loved long chats with them about the daily grind, the Common Agricultural Policy, their knowledge of each corner of their fields.
“He knew that the more he understood about his neighbours’ lives, the more he would understand West Cork.”
Crouan remembers him being chuffed with an encounter with two neighbours in Kilcoe.
“One said to him, ‘You were working late last night. I saw your studio light on’. Then turning to his friend he said ‘This man works as hard as us’.”
That said, in sociable West Cork, the artist realised that he had to be very protective of his time. “He would become agitated if a day went by without some achievement in the studio.
“Bill was a modest man and found it astonishing to be stopped in the street in Skibbereen and asked about his work by ordinary, non-art world people and he was disarmed and humbled by their interest and direct questions.”
Crozier became an Irish citizen in the 1970s, just as the Troubles in the North were escalating, and curator Kissane considers the timing notable.
“He constantly thought about his political identity,” says Kissane.
“At this exact time he started to make major works, one of which is called Crossmaglen Crucifixion from 1975. It shows this flayed body on a crucifix or a kind of church spire in the background. It’s a sort of marrying of religion and nationality and showing of the violence that comes from that. It is very much an anti-war statement — violence is the outcome no matter what position you take, whether you be British or Irish, or nationalist or loyalist.”
The early existential work of Crozier was a revelation to Kissane, “The Crozier I grew up with was only the West Cork Crozier,” he says. “In terms of the beautiful lyrical landscapes from the ’80 and ’90s. So it was a complete surprise for me to discover that he’d already had a 30-year career before he came to Ireland at all and was ‘discovered’ in 1985 in Cork. And that in fact this was a post-war career that looked at existentialism and particularly looked at the body, looked at gender, and looked at politics.”
While the early and late career paintings are vastly different in appearance, Kissane has taken care to illustrate the parallels that remain in the work.
“Once you go into the West Cork Arts Centre you will see one of the most iconic West Cork images which is called Departure from the Island, a classic expanse of hugely lyrical colour.
“Beside that you will see one of the big 1970s landscape paintings with this winged skeleton in it. The point that I immediately want the viewer to recognise is that the West Cork painting is one of these existential paintings but emptied out. That the human figure has been removed but if you look, the concerns and subject matter are the same.”
In other work from the mid-2000s, the landscape is treated is much more like still life.
“It becomes much more totemic and flattened out until the landscape isn’t visible anymore,” says Kissane. “You have trees that look like still lives and the colours remain something similar, beautiful warm reds and pinks and blues. But if you’re looking for topographical or local
references — all gone. I want to try and present how he’s still making big steps in his practice right up until 2010.”
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