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Nevill Johnson (1911 - 1999)
1911 Born Derbyshire; 1934 Moved to Belfast
1946 One-man exhibition, Waddington Gallery Dublin
1948 - 1955 Annual one-man exhibitions, Waddington Gallery Dublin
1947 - 1957 Annual exhibitor at Irish Exhibitions of Living Art
1949 - 1950 Group exhibition, Heal's & Tooth
1953 Six Irish painters touring USA
Fifty Years of Irish Painting, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, Dublin Group Exhibition, Amsterdam
1964 One-man exhibition, Washington DC
1966 - 1969 Irish Exhibition of Living Art
1970 One-man exhibition, Collector's Gallery London
1972 One-man exhibition, Archer Gallery, London
1975 Listowel Graphics Exhibition
1976 Loan Exhibition, Drogheda
1978 One-man exhibition, Tom Caldwell Gallery, Belfast Silver Medal, Royal Ulster Academy
1979 - 1980 One-man exhibition, Tom Caldwell Gallery, Dublin
1981 One-man exhibition, Tom Caldwell Gallery, Belfast
1982 - 1992 One-man exhibitions, Tom Caldwell Gallery, Dublin
1995 One-man exhibition Soloman Gallery Dublin
2003 Retrospective, Tom Caldwell Gallery, Belfast
1980 "Dublin: The People's City", The Photographs of Nevill Johnson
1952 - 1953 Published by Academy Press, Dublin. Award winner at the Leipzig International Book Fair.
1983 "The Other Side of Six". An autobiography by Nevill Johnson.
Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art
Allied Irish Bank
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Australia, Canada, Ireland, England, France, Italy, Israel, USA
AN ESSAY BY DICKON HALL
Nevill Johnson’s was a fiercely independent eye and a fiercely independent voice. By abandoning business life and a comfortable family life in England, to become a painter and mix in the bohemian society of Belfast and Dublin, he chose to be an outsider, to have the freedom to view the world from a position of independence. His work as a painter, photographer, writer or filmmaker is, unsurprisingly, uncompromising and often challenging, but by this same token it has an integrity and seriousness that is invariably rewarding.
Nevill Johnson does not fit easily into the history or the concept of Irish art, but it was in Belfast and alongside John Luke that he first seriously pursued his painting. In 1936, he and Luke saw work by the surrealists in Paris, and the influence of Dali and de Chirico in particular remained strong throughout the next two decades. Johnson began to exhibit with Victor Waddington in the mid-1940s, and by this time his work had been affected by the war and the nuclear threat. Biomorphic figures, their shapes often taken from found objects, wander through empty post-apocalyptic landscapes of unearthly colours. In titles and imagery there is occasionally a religious element that is ambivalent; Johnson remained an opponent of the Church, but had been interested in joining the Catholic church before being put off by the priest he approached.
This is one of a series of conflicts that seems to have driven much of his work, the urge to express and explore ultimately irreconciliable elements. Another, that begins to be evident in the work of the late 1940s, is the conflict between the romantic and the scientist. Johnson began to experiment pictorially, in an attempt to understand and depict the world in terms of its underlying biological and mathematical structure. Flattened planes are fragmented and the images are interpreted in an increasingly stylised manner. At the same time as this search for a truer image through this detached approach, Nevill Johnson remained a deeply humanist artist, searching for means of redemption. For him, these became focused on magic, an arcane symbolism that exists in parallel to his scientific deconstruction of the visual world. This magic is perhaps linked to pre-Christian forces, and attempts to create an atmosphere of magic in which the world of the painting can come alive.
In this work of the late 1940s and 1950s there is a gradual erosion of colour, a simplification of shapes, a grainier surface (often using a gesso ground), and a sharp surrealist vision laced with wit. Nevill Johnson’s work became increasingly angry and bleak, and he seems to have moved from using surrealism as a means of protest and engagement with the isolated and the helpless, to a broader sympathy with humanity and nature in the face of the destructive forces of modern society. A series of paintings in the mid-1950s portrayed a wandering circus family, and they and other figures in the work of this time are typically vulnerable and dispossessed. It was in the late 1950s that Nevill Johnson began to destroy an increasingly large number of his paintings, and eventually returned to England from Dublin, first to London, then to Suffolk.
Stylistically, the primary influence now seems that of cubism. Johnson had seen the work of Picasso and other cubists first in 1936, and the fragmentation and formal analysis of his painting has its roots here. Little work survives from most of the 1960s, and it seems to be in the latter part of this decade that Johnson began to paint and exhibit once again. The process of deconstruction that begins in the 1950s develops in subsequent decades into a more formal process of abstraction. The figures of this time have an almost mechanised appearance that is even more closely focussed on a scientific understanding of life. Nevill Johnson’s work is highly consistent; he works through each stage to s further one, refining his ideas and technique, and introducing a range of repeated block-like shapes, planes and colours that clash and engage, as if replicating the structure of energy and dynamism that drives the universe and human life within it. He takes elements of cubism without adhering closely to any of its principles. There is rarely any use of formal analysis or faceting, but the spatial relationships and sense of volume are often determined by a cubist arrangement of planes and forms.
Throughout Nevill Johnson’s themes and even titles recur, and in the late 1970s he began a series of reworkings of a small number of paintings from the past that was to occupy him to a large degree for the twenty years. Manet’s ’Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’ and Velasquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ had already been interpreted by his great mentor Picasso, so the relationships between artists become increasingly complicated. As we watch Nevill Johnson’s developing involvement with versions of Cézanne’s ‘Grandes Baigneuses’, the paring down of his own visual language is similarly applied to the basic geometry of this image. In this work, perhaps inspired by the engagement with Picasso, Johnson’s wit and playfulness comes to the fore.
Few artists move forward throughout their career; Nevill Johnson’s progress is constant, and it is also deeply considered and never done for its own sake. One advance leads inexorably to another. His painting is romantic and very impassioned, yet there is also an intellectual detachment that enriches rather than dominating it. As a painter, his work is of a quality that is rare in Irish art, but Nevill Johnson also provided a voice that is otherwise lacking here in the last century.
Tom Caldwell Gallery Belfast, Ireland
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