JOHN CRAXTON'S AEGEAN DREAMS


I've been reading reviews of a new biography of the English painter John Craxton by Ian Collins (John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Yale University Press) and am looking forward to reading the book. It is high time this excellent artist got his due, as I first thought in April 2014 when I was impressed by a show of 60 of his works at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. This is what I wrote about the exhibition in The Financial Times.

A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton

For a few months in wartime London two 19-year-old artist friends shared a house-cum-studio in St John’s Wood. Equal in talent and ambition, and equally patronised by wealthy aesthetes and some of the most fashionable painters and intellectuals of the day, they were regarded as the gilded future of English painting. One of the pair may fairly be said to have fulfilled that prediction; he was Lucian Freud. The other was John Craxton who, though he lived to be almost as venerable as his friend, and always retained a core of devoted admirers, is known hardly at all now by the public at large. The sixty paintings and drawings by Craxton, now showing at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, give an opportunity therefore to mull over the vagaries of artistic reputation.

Vagary is a word that sorts well with Craxton’s career. His early London-based work in wartime is a compendium of influences from four luminaries at whose feet the teenage Craxton sat: Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, John Piper and Henry Moore. From Sutherland, who invited him to Pembrokeshire, came a line in quasi-surreal zoomorphic landscape, with some rather striking results; from Nicholson (channelling Picasso) a diluted form of cubism; and from Moore and Piper a group of drawings that mix fluent inked outlines and hatched shading with patches of atmospheric watercolour and gouache. Other early drawings have a Durer-like touch with the Conté pencil, or else a fixation on a Samuel Palmer-esque “poet” dreaming in a rural landscape. Many of these works from the early and mid-1940s are extremely accomplished, showing just why they attracted attention; but seen in retrospect much of it is clearly apprentice work.

                                                                                                                         Dead Hare on a Table 1944-6  

As the war ended Craxton escaped from dingy, rubble-strewn London for Pembroke and the Scilly Isles, destinations that became a prelude to Greece, the land and climate of which he already dreamed. He finally reached the Aegean in 1946, and went on to Crete the following year, where he eventually established a lifelong base. However he was continually restless and away, elsewhere in Greece and the Mediterranean. He returned from time to time to London where Freud and Francis Bacon were established, in their different ways, as stay-at-home painters of anxious, existential interiors. Craxton on the other hand was filling his paintings with light-filled Aegean landscapes and figures that danced and leapt, or lounged and slept, but were universally outlined in luminous colour. His subjects were Dionysian goats and youthful goatherds, taverna sailors and sirtaki dancers, mountain gorges and islands across the sea. His rejection of the label “neo-romantic” was about the prefix: he acknowledged that he was a romantic.

Craxton’s compositional signature, from his early years to much of the mature painting, is a preoccupation with the binary division of the canvas, and the balance of left and right, whereby the eye switches back and forth between two contrasting sides, or is impelled towards a central feature of interest such as a twisted tree. This kind of repetitive balancing can look compulsive, and a touch academic, yet it is expressive of Craxton’s own nature, and this is also part of the key to the decline of his reputation.  Craxton lacked Freud’s near monomania for painting, for shrinking the world into the narrow space of a studio. Preferring the art of living, he spent much of his time in bars and tavernas, in conversation with a wide range of friends, and in journeys and excursions. So the compositional balances in his work – sun/moon, light/dark, mountain/cave – echo the balance he sought in his life. It was a perfectly sane objective, even though it resulted in a degree of creative vacillation, for which he coined the term “procraxtonation”. Incidentally he shared both the attitude and the indecision with another of Greece’s English residents, his friend Patrick Leigh-Fermor, and Craxton’s highly characteristic cover illustrations for Fermor’s books have probably since become his most widely seen work.

The inevitably thin catalogue of paintings that resulted from procraxtonation was not improved by bad reviews back in England, where the market for Craxton’s work chiefly lay. He had a big solo show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in January 1967, a bitterly cold month in the middle of a period when artistic London was distracted between pop art and abstract expressionism. In this context Craxton’s sun-filled modernist pastoral, tinged with Aegean mythology, was treated by critics as a complacent, expatriate irrelevance. The Golden Boy had fallen headlong out of fashion, and he felt deeply discouraged.

                                            Two Figures and theSetting Sun 1952-67

We can see these works less sourly now. True, some paintings seem patterned and formulaic, and may seem a touch emotionally passive even as they seek to celebrate the blazing passion for life that the Greeks call kefi. But, in more diverse and accepting times, there is plenty to be said for Craxton’s positive and life-enhancing vision. And in some cases this vision transcends itself, achieving a state close to ecstasy. His Whitechapel show included a large and shimmering painting Two Figures and the Setting Sun, which after fifteen years of on-off work Craxton had just finished. It contrasts two young men on the island of Hydra at the end of the day: an octopus fisherman is in violent action, repeatedly hurling his catch onto the concrete jetty (the Greek method of tenderising it for the pot), and a lazing recumbent sponge diver recovering from his strenuous day (divers often plunged to a hundred feet and might stay down for five minutes). Here the right-left contrast is simultaneously one between horizontal and vertical, while the forms’ outlines in bright yellow and the carefully controlled striations of colour in the water, with the dazzle of sunset across it, create a heady mix of reality and myth.  

Another marvellous later canvas is Landscape with Elements, the cartoon that Craxton made in oils for a tapestry commissioned from Stirling University in 1973. The cartoon is in its own right an astounding success as a painting: a sumptuous, all-embracing composition as grand and colour-fuelled as a Turner or a Monet. Now owned by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, it is a vibrant dialogue of night and day which gorgeously affirms the young John Craxton’s decision to flee the grey ashes and black smuts of austerity Britain into the dizzying daylight of the Aegean, and his refusal, in spirit, ever to come back.

                                                            Landscape with Elements 1973

 

Posted on August 20th, 2021

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