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Her search for moments

`YOU have to be taken by surprise!'' Victorine Foot announced. We were talking about her paintings. The element of surprise - of the unexpected moment - is what this Edinburgh-based English artist aims to retain in her works. She expanded the same idea when she wrote something to accompany an exhibition in Cumbria in 1981: ``A moment of life: it has to be painted because, once seen, it is so startling and surprising that I have to do something about it. It cannot just go. It must be recorded. Not as a camera can snap it, but as an event in color, form and light.''

Her search for such moments - and for different lights and colors - is wide-ranging. It has taken her, among many other places, to Morocco and Italy.

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In Italy, Tuscany's special meaning for her is certainly intertwined with the fact that this region was the home ground of some of her favorite painters of the past, particularly Giotto and Piero della Francesca. The early primitive Italian artists appeal to her much more than the later Renaissance ones. After a traveling scholarship to Italy some years ago, her report included the verdict: ``The rot set in with Perugino.'' She infinitely prefers the slightly earlier Piero della Francesca's tranquil geometry and calm light to the mannerisms of Perugino. The thing about Piero's works, she says, is that ``there is only the right place'' for everything in them.

Though she would never compare her own work with his, nevertheless placing is a crucial part of her paintings. Her painting ``The Piazza, San Gimignano'' (a Tuscan hill town remarkably unchanged since the 13th and 14th centuries) shows this. It is the composite result of much drawing on the spot. She watched the piazza one Sunday as it filled up with people, becoming a stage for movement, chat, grouping, socializing. As they came and went, she sketched (she draws in pen and ink very fast, enjoying the undistracted opportunity to do this when she is away from home).

She admits, also, to taking photographs which she may use, along with her drawings, when the final painting takes shape in the studio back in Edinburgh. Though the figures in the piazza are carefully placed, the result seems casual and natural, capturing the confluence and the cross-currents of life-in-the-square as an interplay of figures and the spaces between them, and as a gathering together of simultaneous moments.

If she loves Tuscany, then Morocco bowls her over. ``It's absolutely wonderful. It's the only place, apart from America, that I have been which is outside the European continent....'' Here she felt taken back into a different era. Although it was definitely foreign, she felt strangely at home.

``I've been painting my idea of the Bible for years - and I discovered I'd been painting Morocco before I'd ever been there! I seemed to recognize it, the color of the soil and everything.'' What took her to the Camel Market at Goulimine was that it was known for its ``blue men.'' ``I really thought that their skin (would be) blue ... and I wanted to paint them! But apparently they got that name because the blue came off the dye of their clothes and it's underneath that they're blue.''

But apart from that disappointment she was fascinated by both the camels and their owners, as a number of pictures attest.

The painting of ``Dog, Snow, the Meadows, Edinburgh'' (1986) represents the view outside the door of her studio in the Scottish capital - a view that is continually surprising to her mainly because of ``Arthur's Seat.'' This is the 822-foot-high volcanic hill that is, indeed, like an entirely unexpected mountain in the city. Snow, too, transforms the visible world in unforeseeable ways, making the familiar seem new. The hill stands in striking contrast to the flat expanse of ``The Meadows,'' an area of open grass where people walk, exercise their dogs, and (when snow isn't on the ground) sit.

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This painting, like the others, is composed of various elements brought together in Victorine Foot's imagination, though the setting itself is accurately and straightforwardly portrayed. The bounding dog and the woman deep in thought were actually observed in another part of Edinburgh. The sun - and she forgave me for mistaking it for a pale afternoon rising moon, though either way she thinks of it as essentially a patch of paint-color - is also part of this arrangement of tones and shapes, placed in relation to the sentinel winter tree trunks with the same considered rightness.

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