Michael Amherst

Rich, beautiful and vital: John Craxton, at Pallant House Gallery, reviewed

A retrospective that allows you to feel the full sensual force of this British mystic's paintings

‘Two Figures and Setting Sun’ (1952-1967), by John Craxton. Credit: Estate of John Craxton/DACS All rights reserved, 2023

The sensuality of the light in John Craxton’s painting ‘Two Figures and Setting Sun’ (1952-67) has to be seen to be believed. Viewing this large work in Pallant House, you feel its full force. Craxton was concerned with a scene’s essence, rather than simply its appearance and here he achieves not merely an effect but affect. In spite of most of the light being painted in yellows and oranges rather than white, the contrast and refraction of the rays produce a blinding sensation much like staring into the sun on a hot day.  

It was as a chorister at Chichester Cathedral that Craxton’s daily encounter with two 12th-century Romanesque bas-reliefs taught him the timelessness of great art; that, even though it was from the distant past, something fresh and modern endured. 

He noticed the everyday, sometimes even the mundane, and restored to it a profound significance

While his early work was heavily influenced by Samuel Palmer and Graham Sutherland and belonged to the rich, pastoral tradition of British romantic art, one can see a shift from the dark, melancholic figures alone in forbidding landscapes as early as 1945, when he escaped post-war London for the heat and brighter light of the Isles of Scilly.

In 1946, he travelled to Athens, and Greece became home for much of his life. From then on, his work is full not only of the light and heat of the Aegean, but of figures who celebrate their embodiment; either moving or in repose, they practically vibrate with pleasure and vitality.

A review of Craxton’s 1967 retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery dismissed his art as somehow unserious, owing to the ‘handicap of happiness’. Yet, the world depicted is wild and cruel even as it is rich and beautiful. In ‘Two Figures’, the fisherman raises an octopus above his head to dash it against the ground, while the prostrate figure is likely one of many sponge-fishers crippled by the bends.

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