John Craxton. A World of Private Mystery. The Fitzwilliam Museum

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A small exhibition of the British painter John Craxton is on in Cambridge until the 21st April. Craxton is an interesting painter who has not been very widely known. He was born in 1922 and died four years ago. In 1947, after the war, he went to Crete for the first time and spent most of the rest of his life in Greece. He is probably best known for his hot, sunny illustrations for the covers of books by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Craxton is worth looking at because he is both a highly individual painter and a mysterious one. This exhibition explores the artists who influenced him. These included Miro, Picasso, Blake and Samuel Palmer and all these influences can easily be seen in his work especially in his earlier pictures. He was also a competent draughtsman and there is a good drawing of a young Lucien Freud in this exhibition, interestingly now owned by Brian Sewell.

However it is the large oils painted which absorbed me. Four figures in a Mountain Landscape is a masterful picture. Two men are herding and milking goats against a rocky Cretan landscape. A dark cave in the background slowly reveals itself as full of goats, visible by the whites of their eyes. Another man seems to be halting them with an upheld arm.  The dark rock is outlined in red as it catches the setting sun and this outline looks like the upturned face of a woman as she turns towards the sunset. The painting is predominantly green and black with patches of pale blue. It evokes Greek mythology but is painted with a very English hand. The angular shapes are reminiscent of British lino- cuts of the 1930’s and 1940’s, although this picture is about a very private idyll, rather than the bustle of a large city, which those artists frequently depicted. Four Figures evokes some of the same kind of bliss in the everyday that Stanley Spencer’s paintings do. This is Craxton’s arcadia, a flourishing land of men and animals absorbed in their tasks.  I wanted to be in this rough, rocky landscape myself or even live the life depicted.  There is something mystical and joyous about this picture despite its dark tones.

Red and Yellow Landscape, an earlier work painted in 1945 is a picture  entirely lit by the sun.  An abstract landscape of yellow, red and black shouts its message of heat and relaxation, and relaxation was something that Craxton was a master at. During his years in Crete he spent a lot of time eating and drinking and playing music with friends and he knew well how to enjoy himself. He stated that life was more important than art and his paintings express this delight in being alive.

When Craxton was in his twenties, and before he settled in Crete, he painted a small picture called Shepherd and Rocks.  A dark haired young man holding a shepherd’s stick stares out from a cave. The top of the cave circles his head as if he is in a sleeping bag. This is a secret and private domain and seems to be about the artist’s vision of himself as needing to inhabit a separate, introverted and precious internal world. Craxton appears to be a painter who could use his self reflection to animate and engage with the Greek idyll that he discovered in Crete.

If you are interested in British painters of the pre and post war period this view into the internal world of a private yet exuberant painter is certainly worth the trip.

A World of Private Mystery. John Craxton RA. The Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge.

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