Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

'Modern perspectives'

johnson zurich

Ben Johnson's Zurich (Ben Johnson/DACS)

British artist Ben Johnson’s large-scale, photo-realistic cityscape paintings have been stunning audiences for years with their precision, detail and minutely-graduated colours. Hong Kong, Zurich and Liverpool have been models in the past, the finished work in the latter case locally becoming a much-loved representation of a much-loved city.

His latest, Looking Back to Richmond House, was days away from completion when this piece was written in January 2011 and was created at the National Gallery in full view of visitors. Intended as a thought-provoking companion show to the blockbusting Venice: Canaletto and his rivals a couple of floors down, Modern perspectives provides a rare chance to understand and compare how two artists’ concerns with the city manifest themselves two hundred and fifty years apart, and examine their working methods.

With a final desired image determined, Johnson begins with taking many photographs, usually from his chosen viewpoint. This is always elevated but sometimes simulated, in order to yield a satisfying vista. In this, he is following directly the custom of Canaletto and his rivals, who frequently employed invented points of view so as to convey a particular impression of their subject.

These photographs are then painstakingly rendered on computer into hundreds of individual preparatory drawings which form the final image as a composite. Here affinity with the process of architecture first appears since the results are identical to the perspective presentation drawings common in contemporary building design.

The electronic drawing files are then used to generate masks which are cut automatically into vinyl film. Applied to the drawn final image, they obscure and reveal sections and slivers to an incredibly fine resolution, enabling paint to be applied by spray head in dozens of shades to create a convincing picture. Since Johnson seldom overpaints, exceptional accuracy is required in this stage.

Though mechanistic, there is a clear antecedent in the discovery and enthusiastic utilisation of the camera obscura by artists in the 17th century. Vermeer and Canaletto are thought to have taken advantage of this emergent technology to aid their painting, and whilst criticism has come Johnson’s way for the open use of spray and stencil, it is difficult to argue that this is somehow un-artistic. The art comes from the conception and the execution, and a human eye and mind is required for both regardless of any aids. Johnson is happy to admit that his wife’s sable brush work tidies up any badly-registered alignments.

The meticulous application of mask and paint continues, building up the full image piece by piece until it is revealed. It is only at this point that the overall effect becomes clear.

His Zurich piece is almost overwhelming in its truth and power. A city evening of warm light and deepening shadow is shown, and some façades fall into darkness whilst others catch the dying rays of the sun. This is just as Canaletto’s nephew Bellotto preferred for his pictures, also on display downstairs, and tellingly, Johnson confirmed to the author his opinion that Bellotto is “better”.

In one bravura sequence, every branch and twig of a tree deep in shadow is crisply silhouetted against a delicately sgraffito’d building gable flooded with orange light. A great distant mountain range enveloping the entire city is contrasted with a small Swiss flag, limp on its pole and thus almost unrecognisable, a pleasingly witty comment on national identity from Johnson.

For his Liverpool panorama, Johnson adopted a view directly comparable to that of the Italian masters. The quayside runs horizontally across the image, exactly parallel to the picture plane and between the sky and a sea which Canaletto could have painted. With its flatter view, cooler tones and aerial aspect, the pictorial and historical links between two formerly-prosperous maritime trading powerbases are inescapable.

In his new work, Johnson alters the actual topography visible from the Gallery roof to fit more exactly with that of Canaletto’s The Stonemason's Yard, its inspiration. It is evening again. A tree of shadow appears once more, this time lightly overlaid upon the honey-coloured stone of Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square below. Raking light brings the shadows of railings and flagpoles and balustrades to recall the masts and rigging of Venetian shipping at rest. The finials, turrets and towers of Victorian London have their own grandeur, yet the deeply carved stone capital that features so prominently in the Canaletto original is now raised to the top of Nelson’s Column.

Johnson’s work lies between the ages-old painterly tradition and the computer-generated imagery of today. Its sheer craft impresses. It also has clear and fascinating similarities in conception and execution with two techniques from the world of illusionistic film-making. Matte painting, a skill fast dying out, forms highly real impressions on painted glass that change and dissolve on approach into something else. Optical compositing uses masks of darkness on film to allow two images to be merged into one imposed without overlap.

But the artist’s vision remains, and it’s a vision which is in line with others who have also tried to explore the meaning of the city and man. “It’s the appeal of something that grabs you,” Johnson explained to the current writer, “it’s trying to tell a truth, to answer a question that’s been asked. That’s what it’s about.”

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Seemingly Brobdingnagian, Johnson works on Looking Back to Richmond House (DACS)

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