'All self-portraits are – in my view – “who am I” if they are of value’.
Keith Critchlow was born in London in 1933. He studied at St. Martin’s School of Art from 1954-7, and, from 1973 onwards, taught at the Royal College of Art. As an early disciple of the American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, he worked for many years as an architect. He has written several books exploring the mystical inter-relationships of art, nature and mathematics.
Ruth Borchard acquired Keith Critchlow’s self-portrait in 1962 for twelve guineas. In 2001, he wrote that ‘all self-portraits are – in my view – “who am I” if they are of value’. This particular self-portrait was one of a number the artist made in 1960, when he was around twenty-seven years old. Its dynamically sparring brushwork shows the influence of the painter David Bomberg, as well as the mutual influences of some of Bomberg’s pupils and followers, such as Franck Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, alongside whom Critchlow had studied at St. Martin’s.
Critchlow’s strong head and neck and naked shoulders appear to thrust upwards, as though his whole being was engaged in straining at once nervously and forcefully after true vision and authentic expression. One of his eyes is made up of swathe of strokes in deep Bombergian purple, the other composed of a spontaneously applied patch of black. But it is also possible to interpret the eyes ambiguously; their dark apparent formlessness makes them seem shadowed almost to be point of being hidden, even obliterated. This is a self-portrait of a young man as a clear and incisive seer of what is ordinarily dark and obscured.
The way the mouth here pickers to the subject’s right, twisting the face, suggests that the artist is at least deliberating or is on the verge of articulating some subtle, maybe anguished thought. This slight contortion of the features finds a parallel in the way Francis Bacon, at about the same time, was manipulating his subjects’ countenances, transcending any fixed, ‘snapshot’ identity.
Ruth would have seen other examples of self-portraits by Critchlow at his 1962 one-man show at a gallery near the British Museum. All have a similar air of yearning sadness and fierce self-enquiry.