In 1964, William Crozier retrieved this picture out of storage, and Ruth paid £20 for it. Dating from the early 1960s, it is a kind of existentialist self-portrayal, representing perhaps a flayed, screaming Everyman figure. Crozier has since affirmed that his gaunt skeletal subjects – though perhaps initially inspired by individual friends or acquaintances or, indeed, himself – were pared down to an irreducible essence. As such, they become universal symbolic figures.
In 1970, Crozier wrote:
‘I would like an art that is as a razor slash. Some ten years ago I painted my first skeletal figures. Today with a micrometer screw gauge you could measure the flesh that has grown upon them.’
The picture’s shocking visceral immediacy is inseparable from contemporary moral, philosophical and historical influences. After graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 1952, Crozier spent a period living in Paris.
‘I didn’t know anyone. The only thing I did know was something of the intellectual life of Paris… I had read Sartre, Aragon, Celine, Breton, Eluard, René Char… I had seen the first great exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs and Picasso’s war paintings… And so I was actually going home intellectually and aesthetically speaking. It certainly changed my life forever.’
Though Crozier’s own picture can be seen within a larger European tradition (ranging from medieval memento mori pictures to Ensor’s grinning skull-like masks), its traumatised atmosphere is peculiarly modern. The ‘eye’ of Crozier’s figure is a void – a deep black eye socket contemplating God knows what horrors – but the ‘skeleton’ is hardly moribund: it cries out against a blood-soaked landscape, or what is literally a field of blood, above which flows a weird calligraphy of bloody waves (perhaps undulating entrails). Death has never been more vivid.
A simple autobiographical extract by Crozier casts light on what perhaps haunts this self-portrait:
‘The image of man in the twentieth century will not be the cinema stars or the pop idols, but the victims of Belsen.’
Around 1975, Crozier stopped painting solitary skeletal figures in landscapes, and by the mid 1980s, living in the west of Ireland, he was making vibrant landscapes of trees, fields, moors, mountains and sea – dynamic, often radiantly redemptive compositions, charged with intimate, historical and metaphysical resonances, in which distinctions between abstract and figurative seem unselfconsciously to evaporate.