This autumn, to coincide with the Sainsbury Wing exhibition Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals, the National Gallery
has invited contemporary artist Ben Johnson to display his work in an exhibition in Room 1. Ben Johnson paints the city, for very different reasons, and with very different outcomes. The display reveals his motivations and working processes and his fascination with the legacy of Canaletto. In this display, Ben Johnson will be completing one of his paintings in public.
Following the example of Canaletto, Ben Johnson combines and manipulates different views to make paintings that are completely convincing. Along with large-scale cityscapes including depictions of London landmarks Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, preparatory drawings and photographs are shown that demonstrate how this artist produces such apparently realistic paintings with differing techniques and tools.
Ben Johnson is the only contemporary artist to be made an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1990) for his contribution to the public understanding of contemporary architecture.
For 'Modern Perspectives' Johnson is painting one of Londons most iconic locations Trafalgar Square, looking down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament. Over several days he took hundreds of photographs from the roof of the National Gallery. On analysing one particular view through drawing, he noticed that the underlying geometry had a striking connection with the National Gallerys Canaletto Stonemasons Yard. Consequently, Johnson has based his 'Looking Back to Richmond House', 2010, on the rigorous geometric composition of Canalettos famous painting, with the bell tower corresponding to Nelsons Column and the workmens shed to the buildings around Trafalgar Square. Like his Venetian predecessor, he subtly manipulates the topography to create an ideal view.
Johnsons paintings are produced with a spray gun and have their own particular quality, with no brush marks. He uses a complex process to prepare each part of the canvas, employing intricate line drawings from which vinyl stencils are produced, and the painting is made from a vast palette of carefully annotated hand-mixed paint.
Johnson will also be displaying 'Zurich Panorama', 2003 (private collection) and a painting that he completed in public: 'The Liverpool Cityscape', 2008 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), his largest ever single canvas painting. The painting was completed with the help of eleven assistants, 700 colours and 22,950 stencils. This birds-eye view of the city takes in eight square kilometres from the docks to the countryside.
The Trafalgar Square painting will be unfinished when the display opens and will be completed in public, giving visitors an insight into the artists working methods. For Johnson, this public manifestation of a normally private activity will be a literally vital part of the process. He hopes that, as in Liverpool, it will serve as a demonstration that the work is a product of the imagination realised through craft. Johnsons cityscapes constitute not only a celebration of the topography of the city but also a re-presentation of the familiar in an unfamiliar way which returns the viewer to the present and the actual.
Neither artist considers himself a photo-realist. For Clive Head, photography documents his experience and brings visual data to his studio. For Ben Johnson, photography is but one small stage of the process. Johnsons city views are dream views devoid of people and traffic while Heads depict the goings-on of everyday life. Both artists will demonstrate how the subject of cityscape is still being embraced by modern artists who are responding both to the contemporary world and to the Old Masters in the National Gallerys collection.