William Crozier: Artist acclaimed for the vibrant colours of his haunting landscapes and seascapes

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The Independent Online

In earlier harrowing paintings of grimacing sentient skeletons in holocausts of nature, and later vibrantly redemptive (but no less hauntingly reflective) landscapes and seascapes, William Crozier created an exhilarating body of modern visionary art, rooted in a pristine perception of nature and poignant historical resonances allied to intense appreciation of avant-garde art, philosophy and literature.

Born in Yoker, north Glasgow, in 1930 to a Scots-Irish working-class family, Crozier inherited "the best qualities of my mother and father: their energy, a love of music and sentiment, sane common sense and a love of liberty. My failings are of my own invention. I wanted to be a historian at school. And this interest has run as a parallel in my life ever since". An early seminal experience was meeting the Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, an inseparable couple, around 1950.

It was not the Scottish Colourists who inspired him but rather groundbreaking post-war shows of Picasso and Matisse in Glasgow and London. So irresistibly was he drawn to Paris that he travelled there on the very day of his graduation from Glasgow School of Art in 1953. After stifling British austerity, chic, intellectually vibrant Paris was enticing. He glimpsed the writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir several tables away at the Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, though he dared not approach them. In 2006, he said, "I am still interested in existentialist ideas. I'm an ancient existentialist. I think about it almost every day in terms of what we do, with choices and responsibilities."

In 1954 Crozier married the actress Elspeth McKail (from a partly German-Jewish background), and they moved to Dublin. Their son Paul – named after the poet Paul Éluard – was born the following year. In 1956 the family returned to England, settling in Folkestone, where Crozier made playfully absurdist assemblages from beach detritus. The family then moved to Essex, where his daughter Siobhan was born in 1959. He likened the paintings he made there of fire-ravaged sugar-beet fields, whose intricate entrails of black lines evoke "fields burning at night", to black-and-white photos of First World War battlefields.

Essex – like Málaga (and the nearby Spanish village where he settled in 1963 for six months of raw existentialist living under Franco's regime) and, later, West Cork – felt like living at the edge or end of the world. In 1965 his first marriage ended, and in 1973 he became an Irish citizen. Showing at Halima Nalecz's Drian Gallery in London's Porchester Place for the first time, in 1960, and then at Arthur Tooth's in Bruton Place, he soon built up a reputation as a leading radical young painter. In 1981 he married the art historian Katharine Crouan, of French-Irish parentage. They set up a home and studio in Winchester, Hampshire, and in 1983 bought a cottage near Ballydehob on the West Cork coast. Katharine edited the superbly illustrated monograph on Crozier published in 2007.

Crozier's painting Crossmaglen Crucifixion (1975) – in which the crucified skeletal figure is inseparable from a beribboned hallucinogenic landscape – is both an expression of universal anguish – influenced by the work of the Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada, and haunted by Crozier's imaginings of the Belsen concentration camp, which he visited in 1969 – and inextricably linked to the violent political and sectarian history of Crossmaglen in South Armagh, Northern Ireland.

In coming to Cork in the early 1980s, he "cast off something. There was this almost pristine landscape that nobody had painted. I was seeing it afresh, I wasn't seeing it through anybody else's eyes. Maybe artists have to find their own little territory". Thereafter skeletal figures vanished from his art. In his 1993 painting Departure from the Island, the view of cerulean sea, glowing red and yellow headland and dense woodland thickets through which a psychedelic pink path passes, describes the sensation of sailing in Roaring Water Bay – yet the ecstatic stillness at the picture's heart is one of classical Ulyssean adventure.

He said, "I cannot invent anything – I've got to see it; and it can be for a quarter of a second. Suddenly it's there, and I know there's a picture there. It's got to be seen in nature. I could never be an abstract artist." None of his paintings – even his beautifully abstracted still lifes and many luminously patterned portrayals of trees – is devoid of a strong figurative element. Making a painting was, for him, "a totally intuitive situation. The last brushstroke is like a bolt, you just put it in and the whole picture coheres. I don't make any sketches at all. I just go and start the picture."

His art reflected a lifelong absorption in European culture as well as a love of poetry and friendship with poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, George Barker, Allen Ginsberg and Seamus Heaney. Influences included Russian icon painting, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (whose building at Glasgow School of Art inspired him as a student), Francis Bacon and Robert Colquhoun in post-war London – and, perhaps above all, Picasso and Kasimir Malevich. The music of Wagner and Shostakovich permeated days of creation in his studios.

In 1979, living at New York's Chelsea Hotel, he took up a two-month artist's residence at the Thomas Hart Benton Studio. As an art teacher at Corsham in 1959, then at London's Central School of Art and Design from 1965, and three years later, as Head of Fine Art at Winchester School of Art, one of his finest achievements was introducing students to wider continental culture, including, latterly, regular visits to Barcelona. Last year a major exhibition of his recent work was held at the Flowers Gallery in east London. As a man, he was gentle and warm in presence, often mischievous and provocative in conversation (his sparing comments were incisive and wryly witty), and generous in his attention and insights.

William John Crozier, painter and teacher: born Glasgow 5 May 1930; married 1954 Elspeth McKail (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1981 Katharine Crouan; died Wickham, Hampshire 12 July 2011.

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