Posts Tagged ‘John Craxton’

More than surprised, I was actually rather shocked by the venom and silliness of William Feaver’s review in The Spectator  (June 25th 2011) of Ian Collins’ new book, a generous and extensive – indeed, the first ever – survey of John Craxton’s work, John Craxton (Lund Humphries; 2011). In fact, his article is less a review than a personal attack on John.

Tate Britain has organised a small exhibition to coincide with the publication of the book. The paintings are few and the show does rather give the impression of having been cobbled together to coincide with the launch of the book.

That said, I do not see how anyone could fail to be struck, for instance, by Pastoral for P.W., its wonderful movement and harmony and the striking colours: a perfectly balanced and dynamic composition. Music, in fact. And John often used to say, “The difference between my approach and Lucian’s  (Lucian Freud, the friend of his youth) is that Lucian has to have something to copy, whereas I paint from my imagination. For me painting is like composing…”

Or the big land- and seascape, based on the island of Hydra: an abstracted, schematic representation of the bare elements of the island – rock, angularity, spikiness – set  in a tessellated sea, a mosaic of dashes of brilliant, audacious colour against the distant mountain coastline of the Peloponnese.

Or the Cretan gorge, one of many that he painted, its architecture articulated and emphasised by the double and triple bright-coloured lines that are such a distinctive feature of John’s painting, the depth of the gorge pierced by a single broken line representing the penetration of the sunlight.

Feaver dismisses such paintings as “slotted together on Graeco-Byzantine lines”!

John was interested in the flat planes and schematic representation of Byzantine icon-painting. He said that going to Greece enabled him to get back behind the Renaissance and its influences.

“Not yet twenty and already well-versed in overgrown styling and poetic self-pity” – this is Feaver on John’s early work. Well, first, you might have thought, a young man of that age – a teenager, after all – might be forgiven a rather mannered introspection. But, included in the Tate show, are some wonderfully playful and entertaining letters that John wrote to EQ Nicholson, who was a kind of surrogate mother to him at this age. A read of them should have shown Feaver that self-pity was not something John indulged in and I never saw a hint of it in the fifty years I knew him.

There is something oddly personal in Feaver’s dismissiveness. John did not live an idyll, underlain by “scratchiness”; he lived a life like anyone else, painting, finding his way, and, yes, like most people who spend their lives painting or writing, he was often short of funds.

The “emblems,” as Feaver calls them, that recur in John’s painting were not a “hedonic mosaic of favourite things with which to fill pictures.” They were not “taverna enticements”; they were the elements of life in the poor, sun-baked, traditional rural society that Greece was in those  days. Men lived out on the mountain with their sheep and goats, shearing and milking by hand, sleeping on the ground, accompanying their animals at all times, as they still do. They fished, living on their small wooden boats, eating little, sleeping on the deck. They did their military service, the only time many of them ever went away from home. Their pay was not enough to keep them in cigarettes for a month. Their entertainment was comradeship and dancing: it was their means of self-expression – they did not read books; there was not any television. There was a NATO naval base at Souda, close to where John lived, whence the dancing sailors in his painting. “Tintin graphics,” indeed!

Life was poor, harsh, formal and ritualised. John’s painting reflects this. I can only think it is too great a leap of imagination for Feaver to understand how very different from sludge-coloured, blurry England the world that John had entered was.

He quotes some youthful, not very illuminating bit of philosophising about life that John had indulged in as a youngster and accuses him of “burbling away.” In fact, he goes out of his way to make this unusually articulate man, whose conversation was always full of wit and originality and startling insights, seem inane,  while, elsewhere,  allowing Lucian Freud to utter such profundities as, “The world is rather floorboardish,” without comment!

Perhaps it is just that Feaver is a fully paid up member of  the Freud claque, as Brian Sewell calls it. For John and Lucian did fall out, and badly. And I don’t suppose Brian Sewell’s repeated suggestions that John Craxton was the more accomplished artist and had taught Freud a thing or two have gone down particularly well with the claque.

Here is my little contribution to the Craxton/Freud feud. I was having lunch with John one Sunday not long before he died, when an old friend from the art world phoned to say that he had just lunched with Freud and had mentioned John’s name to him. “Oh, is he still alive?” Freud had replied, with exaggerated indifference. John’s reply – I could of course only hear his end of the conversation: “Next time, tell him I haven’t yet died of ‘art failure!”


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John died on Tuesday (November 17th). It is something I have been dreading for a few months now. There have been plenty of signs that he was approaching his end, though we still clutched hopefully at straws: when he perked up during a visit and began to reminisce in his inimitable way, responding always to an audience, recalling verbatim conversations he had with Kenneth Clarke sixty years ago, telling stories, describing some unorthodox and imaginative insight he had had into the origins of Minoan art or a painting of El Greco or some clear line of influence he had detected between Venetian Gothic, the Saracens, Copts and ancient Mesopotamia. But still it is a heavy blow and a great loss.

They asked me in the hospital if I was his son. I am no relation, yet in a way I have always felt that I was. He has framed my adult life. I met him in Khanià in Crete in 1963. He was forty-two and I was twenty-one. I had just come down from Oxford, packed my bags and returned to Greece, with typewriter and guitar, as I had always promised myself I would. Having spent my Post Office savings pursuing the dolce vita in Athens I found a job teaching English in Khanià.

On about my third evening there I found my way to Màrkos Anitsàkis’s on the square above the harbour. It was a wine shop chiefly, the big old barrels hanging off the walls, but Màrkos  served a few simple dishes as well. The only other customers were three men chatting in Greek over a glass of wine and a mezè. One of them, dressed in what looked like a Greek army greatcoat and forage cap, suddenly pronounced the name Charlie Mingus. I pricked up my ears as I have always loved jazz and got involved in the conversation.

The Greek “soldier” was of course John. Whether he really said Charlie Mingus, I forgot to ask him in the nearly fifty years that I knew him! But that is how I remember it.

I was renting a very simple room – bare boards, iron bedstead, tin basin. John found me a better one in a house that had once been the Italian consulate. Then, when the girl I married arrived, he found me a house right on the old Turco-Venetian waterfront next to his.

He was already king of Khanià, the centre of a little colony of foreign artists and writers, as well as being the rather outspoken self-appointed director of Khanià’s antiquities. He discovered the site of Minoan Khanià. When the authorities would not believe him he collected buckets of old pottery shards whenever it rained, until they had to concede that he was right. As he very often was, for he had a wonderfully original mind, his artist’s eye and imagination leading him to insights that duller spirits were not capable of. And there were rather a lot of them: they did not much like having their shortcomings pointed out, especially by a foreigner.

When Michael Kakoyiannis’s film unit arrived to make the film Zorba, John, who knew many of the people involved already, played host to them. I remember going into our local restaurant one evening to find a line of tables in the middle of the room, Anthony Quinn at one end, flanked by Simone Signoret, Alan Bates, Irini Pappa, Walter Lassally and others, with our ten-year-old peanut vendor, Orestis, sitting proudly at the other end of the table reading  a Greek newspaper upside down.

John was a wonderful story-teller and a man of great charm, who possessed the social graces in abundance. With his talent and the artistic connections he inherited from his family, he had an entrée into the most elevated social circles. In fact, he seemed to have met practically everyone who had been anyone in his generation and could recall in detail their mannerisms and conversation – which did not always redound to their credit.

Yet he was also very much at home with ordinary people and this was the Greece that he knew and loved and understood so well, not the Greece of the Anglo-Saxon classicist or philhellene, but the vernacular, “real” Greece of harbourside and sheepfold, of simple people who, dirt poor in those days, had only their traditions of heroic virtues to live by: physical courage, loyalty, family honour, the sacred duty of hospitality to strangers, endurance in hardship and resistance to endless enemies – all summed up in the notion of palikarià. Ian Collins in his Guardian obituary likened John to an ancient Cretan chieftain. And he was a sort of kapetànios, in his youth as well, a palikàri, one of nature’s aristocrats. There was always a certain lordly swagger to him, with his Highland regimental trews and old BSA motorbikes. He would pack me off to the mountains with packets of Matsàngou cigars as gifts for his shepherd friends, which, with a sly wink, they took as evidence of his aristocratic status – o lòrdhos Craxton.

He knew some real palikària too: George Psychoundàkis who had been his great friend Paddy Leigh Fermor’s (himself of course one of the greatest palikària) wartime runner; Manòlis Pateràkis, whose crack shot through the head of the German officer commanding had spared the women and children of his village from massacre; shepherds from the wilds of Sfakià who thought nothing of carousing day and night at a wedding and setting off back to the sheepfold in pitch darkness at 3am. He loved telling stories of how, on a visit to the local jail, he would be standing in the courtyard with the governor, when a voice called out, “Eh, John. Tell my mother you’ve seen me and that I’m all right!” It would be some young fisherman murderer, locked up for killing a man in a family feud.

The warmth and directness and shamelessness of the Greeks of those earlier generations appealed to him hugely. The Greek he spoke – not always grammatically flawless – was the Greek of the piàtsa, of the street. He understood that Greece and I am sure that helped him in his painting.

I am surprised there is so much emphasis on the neo-Romantic when people talk about his painting. I see nothing “romantic” in John’s mature work, that wonderful series of landscapes he painted from the 1960s onwards inspired by the Greek island of Hydra and the deep narrow gorges of his beloved Crete. They are the best Greek landscape paintings I have seen: that semi-abstracted rock rising from a glittering sea made of brilliant mosaic dashes of paint, spiky and angular with prickly pear, thorn and olive, the volumes all delineated and linked by his characteristic double and triple coloured lines; the deep rocky chasms of gorges dark and cool with shadow in the bottom, spiky bushes hanging over the void or an angular goat balancing on a tree… No painting evokes more vividly the still, silent, annihilating heat of a Greek summer noon and the delicious release of deep shade: the sensual, amoral, elemental, pared-down magic of the Greek landscape, presided over by the spirit of the pagan god, Pan, whose goatish profile he inserted like a signature disguised among the tumbling outline of rocks in a small 1988 painting that he called Metamorphic Landscape. I am amazed Greek collectors do not fall over each other to buy his work.

It is November 22nd as I write this. I cannot help remembering that forty-eight years ago this evening John came into my kitchen in Khanià and told us that President Kennedy had been assassinated and we laughed at him and would not believe him. Ever mischievous, you could never be sure that he was not pulling your leg. I remember once accompanying him to lunch with some rather glamorous and eminent woman journalist at our quayside restaurant. When at the end of the meal we took out our cigarettes, John proffered his matches. There was a scorpion in the box! And he played a central role in the controversy about the Metropolitan Museum’s Cycladic lyre player being a fake. He had met the sculptor on the island of Ios, I think it was, not in 1500BC but in 1947! When he pointed out to the sculptor that he should not be delineating the musician’s fingers or knuckles or something like that, the man replied in that splendidly unembarrassed Greek way, “Ma tha kànoume kàti kalìtero. We are making something a bit better!” That amused John hugely.

And he could never resist a pun. You could feel it welling up in him: some of them awful, some very funny. One of the sharpest I heard not so long ago, when someone phoned to tell him about a lunch he had just had with John’s erstwhile friend Lucian Freud. When John’s name was mentioned in the course of the lunch, Freud had apparently asked with feigned indifference, “Oh, is he still alive?” “Well, next time he asks,” said John to his caller, “tell him I haven’t yet died of ‘art failure!”

He loved his food too. He would recall all sorts of dishes he had eaten, where and how they had been cooked. And was he fastidious! If you put too much olive oil in the mayonnaise so that it had that rather dry, burnt taste or put the wrong sauce with the wrong fish or used the wrong kind of pan, you certainly got an earful! He loved Armagnac, but sadly could not drink it in his last days. When we brought him back a bottle – it had to come from the Gers – instead of drinking it he took the cork out and dabbed it behind his ear like a drop of scent.

He was one of a kind. And I shall be always grateful to him, for sending me off to the mountains – where I have tried to remain ever since.

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