Friday, 18 April 2014

John Craxton at the Fitzwilliam

On Sunday with the bf I went to the Craxton exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It was a relatively small affair, and only touched upon his graphic work, which I particularly like. More of that in a future post. Outside the gallery in the lobby space was a video playing of Sir David Attenborough (just him?) talking about the artist. The space was small, crowded at times and too loud. We didn't stay to find out if anybody else appeared.
Craxton, like many of his contemporaries, such as John Piper or Osbert Lancaster, worked in a number of disciplines – illustration, ‘fine art’, theatre design. In fact compared to a polymath such as Piper, or say Robert Harling, Craxton’s reach seems rather narrow – but that’s only relative. Luckily for them there was less specialization than there is now and I suspect that the width and indeed depth of their knowledge was greater than today too.
Craxton was born in 1922 into a middle class family. His entry into the art world seems to have been quite precocious but due to circumstances Craxton’s formal art education, at least at a tertiary level, was quite limited. Unfit for active service he spent the War in London sharing a studio with Lucian Freud. The two men spent the time honing their drawing skills. They were also courted by luminaries of the London art scene. They were funded by Peter Watson and went drawing in Pembrokeshire with Graham Sutherland. The first work on display dates from this period. It is deeply Neo-Romantic, dark and brooding, and some of it surprisingly monumental, but essentially graphic work in ink and none the worse for that. (If the selection made for this exhibition is anything to go by the oils of that period tend to be small.) Nature is transformed into something writhing and menacing; trees, for instance, mutated into something massive and fleshy like tentacles; figures are submerged in the foliage or hide in the trunks of ancient oaks. There is his famous study of a dead hare, (Craxton and Freud drew a lot of dead animals), revealing incidentally a love for use of coloured paper – usually a mid-tone that enabled him to use both black and white media to build up volume and texture. These are my favourite works in the exhibition, although a couple of portraits done later in Greece were a revelation: small and intense, they could have been the work of a Northern Renaissance master. I suspect that like John Minton, Craxton was really a graphic artist, and that it was only through dint of hard work that he managed to ‘think big’. The ‘Pastoral for PW’, 1948, (80” x 103”), shows him struggling with scale.
By then Craxton had visited Greece and had fallen in love with the people and landscape. He eventually settled there, semi permanently, until his death in 2009. It was to have a profound effect on his art. Not only does the work become brighter, but his discovery of the mosaics of the Easter Roman Empire and early medieval Italy (by their nature monumental), finally gave him the language, the ability, to work on a larger, monumental, scale. I suspect the increasing use of a thick line of paint (the width of a tessera?) around each separate object or volume is a direct influence.
I wonder, in retrospect, whether Craxton had, at any one time, two vocabularies: one was employed when he was drawing from life, and I think was pretty constant and was honed in those years working with Freud – what one might consider empirical; and the other was a more stylised, perhaps even self-conscious, manner of the public art in which the imagination and the intellect come into play. Sometimes that come close to each other, other times there is more distance.
In preparing this post I’ve re-read the chapter on Craxton in Malcom Yorke’s ‘The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their times’ (Constable, London, 1988), and found myself in sympathy with the opinions of some of the critics. There is just something missing, particularly in the later work with their acid colours and frankly decorative quality – ‘a bit GayTimes’ commented the bf about a group of their sailors eating and drinking about a taverna table. It was hard to disagree.

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