‘I enjoy the reality of modern Greek life and perhaps in a romantic way I get absorbed by the elements of myth…in everyday existence’ (The Artist, quoted in Ian Collins, John Craxton, Farnham, 2011, p.82)
Craxton was to first visit Greece in 1946, as Europe opened up following the end of the hostilities of WWII. The contrast between war-ravaged London and this Mediterranean idyll could not have been more stark. 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 & oranges melt in the mouth… & the walls were made of honeysuckle” (The Artist, quoted in Ian Collins, John Craxton, Farnham, 2011, frontispiece). The impact that Greece was to have on Craxton was considerable, for the remainder of his life his work was hugely influenced by what he saw, felt and experienced there.
One of the most significant experiences of Craxton’s first visit to Greece and the Mediterranean was his initial exposure to art of the East: ‘the impact of some of the masterpieces of Byzantine art, especially mosaic, which I first saw in 1946-47, had a strong effect on me and this has been persistent’ (The Artist, quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery, exh. cat., London, 1967, p.10). This fragmentation of space and colour first experienced in mosaics becomes a trope through Craxton’s work and is in evidence here. The planes of spatial recession in the work have been sliced and rearranged with the areas between the goat, sailor and flora, dispensed with. In a very similar fashion to both Byzantine art and more antique mosaics, scenes are interwoven and overlapped creating a tapestry of images, playing with the conventions of landscape painting. Shapes become fragmented and angular, and gradation of tone is dictated by the geometry of colour planes. The delineation of colour in this work is made even more explicit through the use of this fantastical palette. Mint greens come in to contact with lavenders, on top of oranges and pinks, combining to make a sumptuous feast.
This work synthesises many of the most noteworthy elements of Craxton’s work. A theme typical to his art, in particular after his first trip to Greece, is that of men in repose after work. As in the present work, figures are draped variously in the foreground, in a dreamlike state. The asphodels amongst which the sailor lies have a poetic significance in their association with Elysium, which is, of course, the final resting place of heroic figures in ancient Greek mythology. The use of a sailor to illustrate this is typical of Craxton’s valorisation of individual members of armed forces in contrast to his disdain for the forces as institutions. Another theme that runs through much of Craxton’s work is his love of goats. In this instance, this carefree figure must also be seen in juxtaposition to the goat in the upper left, tied and readied for slaughter. Craxton found himself drawn to their rebellious and willful nature and the liberty with which they were allowed to roam, slowly consuming everything edible in reaching distance.
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