A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK – review

For a few months in wartime London two 19-year-old artist friends shared a studio in the St John’s Wood area. 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 toasted as the gilded future of English painting. One may fairly be said to have fulfilled the 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 by the public at large today. The present retrospective show of 60 paintings and drawings by Craxton at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge offers an opportunity to mull over the vagaries of artistic reputation.

Vagary is a word that sorts well with Craxton’s career. His early London-based wartime work 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 Craxton to Pembrokeshire in south Wales, 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 Dürer-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 they are clearly apprentice work.

As the war ended, Craxton escaped from dingy, rubble-strewn London for Pembroke and the Scilly Isles (off southwest England), destinations that became a prelude to Greece, the land and climate of which he already dreamt. He finally reached the Aegean in 1946, and went on to Crete the following year, where he eventually established a life-long base. However, he was often restless, travelling to 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 on journeys and excursions. So the compositional balances in his work – sun/moon, light/dark, mountain/cave – echo the balance he sought in his life, which 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 works.

The inevitably thin catalogue of paintings that resulted from procraxtonation was not improved by bad reviews back in Britain, where the market for Craxton’s work chiefly lay. He had a solo show at the Whitechapel 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. Unsurprisingly Craxton’s sun-filled modernist pastoral, tinged with Aegean mythology, was treated as a complacent, expatriate irrelevance. The golden boy had fallen headlong out of fashion, and he felt deeply discouraged.

We can see these works less sourly now. True, some seem patterned and formulaic, and they are a touch emotionally passive even as they celebrate the blazing passion for life that the Greeks call kefi. But in diverse and accepting times, there is plenty to be said for such positive and gently life-enhancing visions, while there are a few paintings in which Craxton transcends himself, and even achieves a state close to ecstasy. One of these is “Landscape with the Elements”, the cartoon for a tapestry commissioned in 1973 by Stirling University. It is in its own right an astounding success as a painting: a sumptuous, all-embracing canvas as grand and dazzling as a Turner or a Monet. Now owned by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, this vibrant dialogue of night and day gorgeously affirms young John Craxton’s flight from the grey ashes and black smuts of austerity Britain, and his refusal, in spirit, ever to come back.

Until April 21, fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

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