This uplifting personal saga, reflected in brilliant pictures, charts a voyage from darkness into light. Craxton enjoyed a charmed existence. Superbly talented and supremely fortunate, he was a heroic hedonist—living for pleasure and painting it, too. Cosmopolitan and nomadic, he found early fame as an artist in war-time London with his best friend Lucian Freud. But he always longed for Greece.
Hailing from a large, musical, and well-connected bohemian family, he was an anarchic spirit who only ever wanted to draw and paint—and he learned by looking. Once introduced to the work of El Greco and Picasso when a teenager, and discovering a love of ancient Greek art while exploring museums, he yearned for life in the sun. Drawing in Paris in 1939, as a first step on a southward journey, he was forced back to England by looming World War Two, and then made his name as a wild artistic prodigy during six long years of entrapment.
Charming his way onto a bomber borrowed by the wife of the British Ambassador, he landed in Athens in the spring of 1946. Enduring joy coloured his ensuing pictures. Exploring the Aegean over blissful decades, his senses were completely seduced. He was perfectly alive in each exquisite moment. From that moment of ecstatic arrival until his death, virtually every Craxton picture praised the life, light and landscapes of Greece.
With much of his work never previously exhibited, he can only now be recognised as an unrivalled portraitist of Greek faces and places from the middle of the 20th century. Featuring many unknown works from the Craxton Estate, the revelatory Benaki Museum survey will comprise 90 artworks covering every period of the artist’s career. The display ranges from prints and drawings to paintings and a vast tribute tapestry, plus photos and personal effects.
Just ahead of mass tourism, John Craxton savoured the persistence of myth in rural lives seemingly unchanged since Homeric times. He had many famous friends, designing wonderful book jackets for Paddy Leigh Fermor and a ballet for Margot Fonteyn. But he preferred to depict ordinary people—shepherds and their families, sailors, and soldiers: the company he loved best.
After much wandering—and staying for long spells in the ancestral mansion of his closest painter friend, Nikos Ghika, on Hydra—he moved to an old house on the harbour at Chania, very close to the Municipal Art Gallery which will host the exhibition in autumn.
A famous wit whether speaking in English or Greek, he once said: “Not having a motorbike made me feel like a centaur turning into a rocking horse.” For all his self-taught erudition, he was essentially an innocent abroad. Great courage—or recklessness—got him into trouble. When exiled from Greece under the Colonels, it was said that his jokes had run away with him—mocking authority once too often.
During nearly a decade of restless exile, he settled in Edinburgh—the Athens of the North—to design and oversee a tapestry paying homage to traditional Cretan weaving and to the mythology, climate, scenery and sensuality of Greece. Never lent before, the Landscape with the Elements tapestry will be the centenary exhibition centrepiece.
Returning to Greece was the greatest gift of John Craxton’s lucky life. Back home in Chania, his ever-evolving art enjoyed a renaissance. Gradually he absorbed all the layers of Greek creative history—sculpture from antiquity, Byzantine mosaics, Cretan iconography—to embrace ancient and modern within the same ambitious picture. He expressed playfully a profound love for people, goats and cats.
John Craxton scorned art-world reputations. He never cared to finish his paintings, let alone to sell them. Their message is that he much preferred life to art: Greek life most of all. After his death, in a London hospital in 2009, his ashes were scattered in Chania harbour. Now he is part of the picture.
at Benaki Museum of Greek, Athens
until September 11, 2022