'I'm off again in a day to an island where lemons and oranges melt in the mouth and goats snatch the last fig leaves off small trees. The corn is yellow and rustles and the sea is harplike on volcanic shores. Saw the Marx brothers in an open air cinema and the walls were made of honeysuckle' (J. Craxton, quoted in I. Collins (ed.), John Craxton, Farnham, 2011, n.p.).
'He always started with an eyeball, then he imprisoned the eye and then an eyebrow, then a nostril' (J. Craxton quoted in I. Collins (ed.), John Craxton, Farnham, 2011, p. 79).
Rarely seen in public and in the collection of John Craxton and his heirs since 1947, Head of a Greek Man (1946) is an exceptional, early portrait by Lucian Freud. It dates from an important moment in Freud's development, when he travelled to the Greek island of Poros with close friend John Craxton. Exhibited in Freud and Craxton's joint show at the London Gallery in 1947, Head of a Greek Man was acquired directly by Craxton, who greatly admired his friend's 'limpid and luminous' aesthetic. This landmark painting alongside the Tate collection's Man with a Thistle (Self-Portrait) (1946) executed on the Scilly Isles represents the maturing of the artist at the tender age of 24. Expertly realised with careful, Ingriste contours and masterful modulation of light, Head of a Greek Man depicts the youthful face and dark features of Petros Mastropetros, the son of a Greek landlady whom Freud and Craxton encountered during their trip to the Saronic Gulf. Realised in oil on panel with a fine sable brush, the intimate portrait appears almost liquescent with all traces of Freud's brushmarks melted into the paint surface. Rising up from beneath, the grain of the wood panel offers the composition a pure, organic beauty, like the raw, natural landscape of Poros. Painted from an unflinching, frontal perspective with dimensions around half human-scale, Head of a Greek Man assumes the authority of a postage stamp, the head situated squarely in the picture plane, whilst the torso fills the full width of the frame. As if haloing the young man's head, Freud has illuminated the olive green backdrop with light, which radiates from behind the subject's ear and closely cropped ebony hair. Particular attention is paid to the angular, dimpled jaw, the pouted lip, and the slender brows framing the young man's gentle almond eyes. His simple grey shirt appears unbuttoned, casually creased with vectors of light and shadow, whilst his simple brown jacket comfortably traces his broad shoulders. Almost austere in its clean aesthetic, Head of a Greek Man recalls the painted icons Freud encountered at the Byzantine Museum in Athens during his trip.
For their show at the London Gallery, the two artists assembled forty-two works from across their oeuvres including a number of still life paintings undertaken on Poros. Amongst these was Still Life with Green Lemon (1946), previously in the collection of Roland Penrose, which features an anxious Freud peering through an open window. Later works were also assembled, including a number of Kitty Garman, daughter of Jacob Epstein, whom Freud married upon his return to England. In many ways, Head of a Greek Man can be said to prefigure these wide-eyed almost breathing and tremulous paintings of Kitty. Just as the serene, constant character of the young Greek man is delivered from the paint surface, so Kitty's emotional fragility is translated from the canvas in works such as Girl with a Kitten (1947). As Robert Hughes once eloquently concluded, 'it is the work of a young artist to whom style is breath but who has learned to abolish mannerism in the interests of feeling' (R. Hughes quoted in Lucian Freud: Paintings, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London 1988, p. 18).
Desperate to skip the country after years of wartime restriction, Freud and Craxton began their European adventure in the Scilly Isles after a foiled attempt to stow away on a Breton fishing boat. There they spent time painting Scillian palms and gorse, puffins, rocks and dark blue sea. By the summer of 1946, travel to Paris had become far easier, and the two were sponsored by Peter Watson, owner of art magazine Horizon, to travel abroad with an advance secured from the London Gallery. Indeed, it was Watson that had covered the artists' rent at Abercorn Place; the maisonette the two had shared in St John's Wood before their departure.
Upon arriving in Paris, Freud was introduced by Javier Vilato to his uncle Pablo Picasso and later in September he travelled to Greece to join Craxton who was by then already in Athens. Craxton arranged rooms in Poros where the artists would work closely: Freud undertaking his Portrait of a Man (1946), which captured a youthful Craxton sporting a new moustache, his fair skin rendered in tender pink from the intense Mediterranean sun. As Craxton later recalled, the prolonged sittings Freud demanded for his paintings were 'absolute misery'. 'He always started with an eyeball, then he imprisoned the eye and then an eyebrow, then a nostril' (J. Craxton quoted in I. Collins (ed.), John Craxton, Farnham, 2011, p. 79). Craxton himself made a remarkable pencil drawing of Freud and his own depiction of Petros, the young Greek man languishing on a hillside in the guise of a fisherman. Both men were impressed by the unique brilliance of the Aegean sun and the bright, bursting citrus fruits growing natively on the island. As Craxton wrote, 'I'm off again in a day to an island where lemons and oranges melt in the mouth and goats snatch the last fig leaves off small trees. The corn is yellow and rustles and the sea is harplike on volcanic shores. Saw the Marx brothers in an open air cinema and the walls were made of honeysuckle' (J. Craxton, quoted in I. Collins (ed.), John Craxton, Farnham, 2011, n.p.).