Cretan Portrait is a frontal head and shoulders portrait of an unidentified young man. Almost filling the canvas, the head is cropped at the top edge of the image just above the hairline and is rendered in a faceted style. The man is depicted wearing a black shirt or jersey and is shown against a blue background, perhaps sea or sky. Craxton had first visited Greece in 1946, where he shared a house in Poros for a short time with his friend the painter Lucian Freud (1922–2011). The following year he visited Crete where he would later settle, dividing his time between London and, from 1960, Hania. In his first years of visiting Greece and Crete between 1946 and 1950, Craxton’s paintings can be predominantly divided into head and shoulders portraits, such as Cretan Portrait, three quarter-length portraits (such as Portrait of Sonia 1948–57, private collection) and landscapes, most often peopled by shepherds and goatherds (such as Pastoral for P.W. 1948, Tate T03838). He was immediately captivated by his experience of Greece and its intensity of light and way of life. In 1948 he wrote to a friend: ‘I am off again in a day to an island where lemons grow & oranges melt in the mouth & goats snatch the last fig leaves off small trees the corn is yellow and russles [sic] & the sea is harplike on volcanic shores saw the marx brothers in an open air cinema & the walls were made of honeysuckle.’ (Postcard to E.Q. Nicholson, quoted in Collins 2011, p.99.) Given the immediate effect that the discovery of this idyll had on him, it is not surprising that he contrasted his experience in Greece with his feelings of London:
I can work best in an atmosphere where life is considered more important than Art – where life is itself an Art. Then I find it is possible to feel a real person – real people, real elements, real windows – real sun above all. In a life of reality my imagination really works. I feel like an émigré in London and squashed flat.
(Quoted in Grigson 1948, unpaginated.)
Craxton’s attention to the portrait form at this time – he also made a large number of pencil and charcoal drawings – echoes Lucian Freud’s, with whom he had shared a studio; however, their manner of scrutinising the subject was entirely different. Where Freud’s portraits have an almost forensic charge, Craxton’s are alive in a very different way, as his sensual experience of Greece suggests. This quality is captured in Craxton’s own description of the portrait drawings he made in Greece:
I arrived in Greece knowing I couldn’t draw but I would sit down in front of a man, say in a marketplace, surrounded by hordes of children, and somehow think myself into the man, allowing his image into my personality and then drawing almost unconsciously. I got amazing likenesses in 20 minutes. They thought it was uncanny. I’d made myself into a machine – a camera. You’re trying to hold a single moment in a line, but it’s not static: there’s movement between you.
(Collins 2011, p.101.)
Although paintings such as Cretan Portrait retain the sense of vitality that is held in Craxton’s best drawings, they exchange a quality of line for an attention to post-cubist faceting, that also structures the composition of his key painting from this early period, Pastoral for P.W. 1948. This faceting is evident to varying degrees in much of his work of this period, such as Portrait of an Aged Cretan 1948 (private collection) that was exhibited in his solo exhibition at the London Gallery in 1949, or Head of a Sailor 1946 (private collection, reproduced in Grigson 1948, pl.18). It reveals how Craxton drew not only on the work of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), but also that of André Masson (1896–1987) and El Greco (1541–1614), as much as his newly-found interest in Byzantine art, to create portrayals of a quiet intensity and intimacy.
Geoffrey Grigson, John Craxton, Horizon, London 1948, unpaginated.
John Craxton, Paintings and Drawings 1941–1966, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1957.
Ian Collins, John Craxton, London 2011.