‘Greece was more than everything that I had imagined and far more than I had expected…As my first contact with the Mediterranean and the discovery of the action of light, the way light and shadow behave, the arrival in Greece was astonishing.’ (John Craxton, quoted in John Craxton, exh. cat., Christopher Hull Gallery, London, 1985, p.22)
John Craxton was an artist who sought adventure, romance and a life filled with vitality, convivial fun, and enriched by creative output. It was in Greece that he discovered a landscape, culture and rich history that fulfilled these requirements and he was, from the moment he arrived, enthralled by the Arcadian landscapes, finding his home on the Aegean shore, off and on, for more than 60 years.
When Craxton left a war-ravaged Britain for Greece in the spring of 1946, what he found was in many ways a shocking idyll, an environment filled with blazing light and colour, peopled by vibrant personalities and imbued with a rich mythology. He had left behind an island where olive oil was to be found in chemists for the purpose of unblocking ears and he arrived to a set of islands: ‘where lemons grow and oranges melt in the mouth and goats snatch the last fig leaves off small trees the corn is yellow and russles (sic) and the sea is harplike (sic) on volcanic shores saw the marx brothers in an open air cinema and the walls were made of honeysuckle.’ (John Craxton, postcard to E.Q. Nicholson, 1948, reproduced in Ian Collins, ‘Charmed Life in Greece’, John Craxton in Greece, exh. cat., Osborne Samuel, London, 2018, p.5). This divine environment had a profound impact on Craxton’s work, with the life, colour, people and spirit of Greece, permeating his compositions.
Greek Farm was painted between June - July of 1946, only a few weeks after Craxton’s initial arrival in Greece, and just before his good friend Lucian Freud joined him in Poros, where they sketched and painted together for several months in preparation for an exhibition to be held at The London Gallery in the Autumn. The painting depicts a shepherd in a contrapposto pose, with a lamb slung over his shoulders, an image which immediately calls to mind classical sculptures of Kriophoros or the Good Shepherd. His form rises above the viewer, perspective conveyed entirely by size, with no regard to gentle variations of tone, instilling the figure with a monumentality and mythical timelessness. Craxton had been fascinated by shepherds, fisherman, and sailors from early in his career, but his arrival in Greece meant he could now look to his immediate surroundings for source material. He immersed himself in the local culture of the tavernas and seaside harbours, learning a colourful language imbued with local colloquialisms, and surrounded by dynamic characters who came to inhabit his canvases.
The landscape on which the shepherd stands is craggy yet vital, a gnarled tree springing from the rich volcanic soil, a rebellious, wilful goat determinedly reaching for its last available leaves. The landscape pulses with life, an element reiterated by the slashes and dots of bright red and blue, which have a Miroesque quality to them. Craxton was an admirer of Miro, as well as Picasso, having seen examples of both artists' work at the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale. The picture plane, which breaks into facets of colour, also suggests an earlier influence. As Craxton wrote: ‘the impact of some of the masterpieces of Byzantine art, especially in mosaic, which I first saw in 1946-7, had a strong effect on me and this has been persistent.’ (John Craxton quoted in John Craxton, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1967, p.10). The richly coloured faceted paint surface, the choice of subject matter, and the idyllic setting, certainly owe much to the art and architecture encountered by Craxton for the first time in Greece, and Greek Farm is one of the finest works to emerge from this seminal period in Craxton’s development.
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