Almost three decades and a world of experience separate Self Portrait and Street in Kairouan (see lot 85) by John Craxton – but they share a sense of being works made in exile. Each was produced at a time when the artist longed to be in Greece.
The wide-eyed but wary self-portrait was drawn early in 1942, when Craxton was only 19. He had lately been exempted from military service with what was almost certainly undiagnosed tuberculosis; and, in the middle of the Blitz, the Craxton family house in London had been bombed. No wonder he looks watchful and guarded.
At this point he was working in a St John’s Wood maisonette where Lucian Freud, the best friend of his youth, also had a studio. Both artists were attending Goldsmiths College, on Graham Sutherland’s advice, to aid their skills in draughtsmanship. But they resisted most tuition and went their own way. Soon pens and ink would be abandoned when Craxton discovered a medium for an even clearer line and Freud followed suit.
As David Attenborough has written: 'Both he and Freud, with conté crayons in their hands, considered that their job as draughtsmen was to find one line and settle for it, right or wrong. Nor did Craxton believe that a face was defined in any important way by its moles and wrinkles. Surface details might well produce a superficial likeness, but only too often one which proved to be lifeless, with no more truth or interest than a waxwork or a passport photograph.'
The haunting self-portrait offered here captures a fair likeness with minimal means. Throughout the war Craxton produced paintings and drawings where solitary figures, often in menaced landscapes, were at least emblematic images of himself and his predicament of entrapment. Forced by looming war to leave art studies in Paris in the summer of 1939, he would be unable to reach his most desired destination of Greece until spring 1946. Soon after that he depicted other people only.
Craxton travelled all over the Aegean with great delight before settling on Crete in 1960. But after the military coup in Athens in 1967 he was evicted from his adopted homeland for the best part of a decade.
He then wandered around the Mediterranean, as well as West Africa and the Canary Isles – searching for the next best thing to forbidden Greece. In the spring of 1971 he roamed across Libya and Tunisia with Caspar Fleming – the self-destructive and ultimately doomed son of writer Ian Fleming. They visited ancient Roman sites and Craxton sketched Arabs boys in streets, cafés and bus stations.
The figures in Street in Kairouan (lot 85) had a particular appeal. Their hooded cloaks lent a note of mystery – and also of nostalgia since reminiscent of the thick woollen coats Cretan shepherds wore for cold nights on the White Mountains. The frame has been hand-painted by the artist.
We are very grateful to Ian Collins for preparing this catalogue entry.