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Victoria Crowe exhibition National Portrait Gallery of Scotland

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 19 Aug 2018, 08:29

Victoria Crowe
This exhibition is described in the following website: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/victoria-crowe-beyond-likeness.

I visited on 16th August whilst at the Edinburgh Festival. It wasn’t an exhibition I intended to go to – being so busy and already overloaded with events. But since my tickets for the Emil Nolde exhibition were for next week and I wanted to meet the requirement of a A843-A844 Bridging Course exercise before the end of this week, I called in here.

And was I grateful. I didn’t know Victoria Crowe’s work previously, but I found it moving and exciting. So, here’s my exhibition experience.

Let’s start with the shows sub-title: ‘Beyond Likeness’. Portraits, I had thought, usually involve contexts outside the ‘likeness’ of their subject to a sitter at some specifiable point in space and time: they are tied to dynastic, national, family, professional & company affiliations – they capture a social role often and are representative of that role and its institutional icons. Otherwise, thought I, why a ‘National Portrait’ Gallery. Undeniably over-simple that thought and I have had to rethink this after this exhibition.

Crowe’s portraits tell not only of people in a social role – although they are that. There is a range of intellectuals, artists (of various kinds) and politicians to name just a few but the portraits of them deliberately go beyond that role. There is something so personal and relational – as if the person in the portrait were in the process of not only characteristic activity but of actively making a relationship between themselves, the viewer and the sometimes abstract and sometimes very material entities which made up the boundary between their internal and external self.

Sometimes, a device is used to do that, as in the use of an inner-frame to contain images of an inner and past life of the poet Katherine Raine. The frame is a ‘real one’ – it belongs to a mirror gifted to the sitter by the artist Winifred Nicolson. In it words (from Raine’s poetry) and semi-liminal related (and sometimes non-relating) images occupy the space making it feel over-constraining. These then are pictures of ideas and emotions and have agency in the communication of thought and feeling that both links viewer and sitter – showing what is like and what is unlike.

The most moving instances of that are those private pictures of her son, Ben, becoming an undergraduate and those following his loss – liminal self-portraits of a mother in a mirror frame – in the margin of a painting dominated by a lily of mourning. This feels too terrible to describe. Note though how the curation of the exhibition reserves the private life of Crowe’s family to a space at the end of the exhibition – a space in which pictures of Ben, Gemma and Michael can be seen as we congregate in a narrow corridor holding these pictures – both mounted vertically and in a showcase and thus seen on a horizontal plane. These pictures crowd in on one – represented by the log-jam of visitors at this endpoint.

They force the extremely personal to confront the extremely public – love as emotional space struggling to exist in a very public place.

I thought I’d concentrate though on one picture which has public and personal meaning for me but which were less painful in their message – a pictures of the great psychologist and socio-political icon, R.D. Laing.

Laing was a controversial figure since his dissection of the some of the psycho-social effects showed these to be sometimes as toxic as ideology and denial of painful emotion makes them seem cosy and of a unitary goodness. Let others see what they can in the portrait of Ronnie. Crowe spoke of their interaction as extremely socially uncomfortable in the first stages (some of which appear in photographs on show) until fuelled by excess drink and a deeper level of communication. In the portrait, the depths of Laing’s meaning to Crowe emerge in part from objects that surround him – a Byzantine icon and a metronome but also in the bottom left hand corner the cover of Laing’s The Politics of Experience in which the frame of a head holds icons of both conflict and insight. But that Laing was closely guarded himself seems communicated in his closed square and in the woven defences that surround him and somewhat enclose, occlude (in darkness) and hide him – even the thickly woven wood in the window-frame to his left. The studies shown in the exhibition concentrated on Crowe’s attempt to get right the very closely woven and thick cardigan in which colours are trapped by a dominant repetive motif of black squares. The cardigan covers a roll-top jumper. I tend not to see this picture of a man struggling to keep warm as insignificant to the emotional relationships in this painting.

But go and see it and decide for yourselves. There is much much more.

All the best

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