This is a revue I wrote for Cassone , the art book review site, but because of some muddle it wasn’t published there. I was interested in Craxton from early on, and prompted by small coincidences – for instance, I spent many months in Galatas/Poros without realising that Craxton and Freud had been there before. I first saw Craxton’s work in the 1950s, in a copy of ‘Penguin New Writing No 32’, in black and white. My father was amused by this neo-cubism, and wrote a short poem in pencil in the margin
If to Greece you should go to learn farming
You may find biped goats a trifle alarming
But Greek farms hold other surprises
Greek farmer’s feet are of two different sizes
Lund Humphries 2011 £35
186pp 179 col/47mono
John Craxton was one of the English painters who grew up during World War Two, He inherited the usual twin problems of young painters in our time, namely, what is to be said and how is one to say it? The continuous crashing of successive revolutionary waves for the preceding hundred years meant that Make It New was an imperative, not helped by nearly six wartime years cut off from the continental main stream.
He was born in 1922 into a London musical family with connections to any number of creative people, which meant continuous personal advantage. He was lucky enough at 14 to visit Paris and see Picasso’s Guernica, and was back studying drawing in Paris just before WW2 broke out. During the war he drew and painted what became known as neo-romantic landscapes, derived from Samuel Palmer and from Cubism mediated by Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. Getting to know Sutherland, he spent time working alongside him in Pembrokeshire. Aged 21 he had a show at the Leicester Galleries, (1944) and sold more than 30 paintings. Five more exhibitions followed at this location, the last in 1966. He shared studios, still life objects, dead animals, and sometimes even sheets of paper, with Lucian Freud. His work appeared in Penguin New Writing 32 (1947), and his photographic portrait, along with those of Medley, Minton, Colquhoun, Macbryde, Vaughan, Freud and Rosoman (Portraits of Contemporary British Painters) in No 35 (1948). He said: ‘There were two groups during the war: the artists around John Lehmann and Penguin New Writing, such as Michael Ayrton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan, and then on the other side, with Peter Watson and Horizon, there was Lucian and myself, Sutherland, Colquhoun and Macbryde.’
In 1946, almost by accident, Craxton went to Greece and started painting in Poros, joined for a while by Freud; eventually he made in a home in Crete, overlooking the
harbour in Hania. This was the promised land: the spikey shapes constantly imposed on his early English pictures were naturally present here: he replaced the imaginary shepherds of his early English landscapes with real (but increasingly idealised) Greek shepherds. and dark skies and gloom with the blazing sunlight and jewelled colours of the Mediterranean. The idealisation may have been entirely willed – in the early ’50s he wrote ‘I feel a very strong desire to experience a sort of catharsis: to be forced to turn away from painting private pictures and to make for more universal values.’ (Interview by Bryan Robertson). But the later pictures are generalised: with one or two exceptions the figures become types rather than specific individuals. The paintings of the second half of the ’40s are the most charged – and they were as exciting to me as a young painter then, even in Penguin New Writing’s soft black and white, as the Sutherland and Nash he also looked back to.
This monograph is very welcome: it handsomely illustrates the work, and provides a chronology and much information. More could have been said about the interaction between Craxton and Freud when their pictures were consciously using distortion, and before Freud travelled down a very different, puritanical, path towards Rubens and squalor. One can imagine how they drifted apart: it would be nice to have more evidence, especially about their painting. What was actually said when ‘Craxton commented unfavourably on Freud’s Large Interior, Paddington’ at the time of their final rift?
Rather more importantly, while Nikos Ghika (a Greek painter friend who worked on the island of Hydra, where Craxton stayed with him) is mentioned in the text, he is only represented visually by a portrait of the young Craxton in 1949. A couple of Ghika’s landscapes would have made clear the great debt Craxton owed to him stylistically. He had described Ghika’s work as ‘revitalised Cubism.’ Whether or not Cubism needed revitalising, Ghika certainly developed a language for describing the Greek landscape which derived from the Paris in which he had lived from 1922-34, and Craxton made plentiful use of this language once he had absorbed it. Unfortunately, as it seems to me, the convincing spatial organisation of ’40s paintings, using Cubist devices, dwindles to decorative arabesques in much of the later work.
Collins’ monograph is divided into two parts: the first covers 24 early years and the second part, covering the subsequent 63 years, is entitled ‘Life Even More Than Art,’ This division is in itself a kind of critical judgement. By the end Wyndham Lewis’ remarkably mild (for him) 1949 judgement on Craxton’s art turned out to be not far from the truth:
‘A pretty tinted cocktail that is good, but does not kick hard enough.”