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The world of private mystery in John Craxton’s paintings

Late lunches in Arcadia: rediscovering John Craxton’s sun-drenched Greek idylls.
Islands of edgy light: Galatas (1947)
Islands of edgy light: Galatas (1947)
They may not like it but it is the fate of artists, as with all interesting creatures, to be labelled. John Craxton, a friend of Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and John Piper, has duly been filed under “neo-Romantic”. These were the painters who in the years before the Second World War rediscovered the mystical work of Samuel Palmer and William Blake and reacted to the lowering mood of the times by conjuring up a British Eden of shepherds and overgrown green lanes among billowing hills that could be pulled close like an eiderdown. Craxton refuted the label, but grudgingly accepted a more accurate one: “Arcadian”.

This separation from his fellows was not just a question of taxonomy. From 1946 he lived largely in Greece, a place where, he wrote, “I find it’s 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.” But in finding an authentic Arcadia in Crete he also distanced himself from the art and artists of the postwar world and so slipped out of the story. “A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton RA (1922-2009)”, a small but choice exhibition at the Fitzwilliam, is an overview and reminder of the career of this unfashionably joyous painter.

The first part of the exhibition shows his development as a largely self-taught artist who unashamedly drew on the work of those around him. Craxton tried out monochrome landscapes with schematic representations of himself as a poet-wanderer amidst burgeoning, spiky vegetation that were not just projections of Blake and Palmer but “my means of escape and a sort of self-protection”. He pastiched Sutherland when he accompanied him on a painting trip to Wales, and he grew close to Lucian Freud – personally and stylistically (both men liked to draw dead animals: Kenneth Clark recalled visiting them and finding a dead monkey hidden in their oven) – when they shared a flat in 1941.

The work of this period was likened by Wyndham Lewis to “a pretty tinted cocktail, that is good but does not kick quite hard enough”. It is an unduly dismissive judgement. Many of the pictures – take Hare in a Larder (1943) or Welsh Landscape with Sleeping Reaper (1944-45) – have a distinctive air of dream and enigma, even as Craxton searched for a style of his own.

He found that style in Greece. It not only lightened his palette but allowed him to use cubism’s fractured forms in a way that suited the sharpness of the light and the geometry of the landscape and houses. It was in Greece, too, that he developed his considerable skills as a portraitist. A spare and tender pencil drawing of Freud was followed by a series showing neighbours, friends and the characterful types he found at taverna tables. Soulful and full-frontal, the pictures have an immediate presence, sometimes using cubism’s lozenges, other times pared down and naturalistic. He would, he said, allow the image of his subject “into my personality and then draw it unconsciously”.

Dark and fecund lands: Llanthony Abbey (1942)
Dark and fecund lands: Llanthony Abbey (1942)

It was, though, the Greek way of life that entranced him. He saw the country and its people as representatives of an ancient way of life and he depicted them fringed with colour, bound by red and yellow outlines. Goatherds (he was a great painter of goats, “demonic, wilful and undisciplined”) and sailors in their white-and-blue uniforms were favourite motifs. One of his most unaffectedly pleasurable paintings is a colour-saturated image of three sailors eating a meal of prawns, squid, sardines and salad that is mouth-watering in every sense. When he painted panoramas of Hydra or Crete’s gorges he became near-abstract, reducing the scenes to flattened and highly patterned assemblages of coloured lines that bear the imprint of Byzantine mosaics.

A man of great charm, Craxton became friends with Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece and it is through his drawings for the scholar-traveller’s dust jackets that he is now best known. Other friends included Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton, and Raymond Mortimer (this magazine’s former literary editor), with whom he once smoked a joint in Toscanini’s private box at La Scala.

Craxton’s pictures were not always as popular with the critics, both because they stood outside the avant-garde and because, in their sun-drenched colours, they had the smack of, as a friend described it, “taking shape very slowly between late lunches and early drinks”. Yet these are not necessarily faults. In original hands – Craxton’s – they are merits.

Until 21 April
John Craxton: A World of Private Mystery
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge  

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State