Claudette Johnson: Presence

The Courtauld Gallery (London), Sep/23-Jan/24

Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is immediately confronted by three imposing women, in blue, black, and red. These portraits, made in pastel, gouache, and watercolour on paper, depict women with penetrating gazes and hands deliberately arranged — one under the artist’s direction, the others “posing how they felt represented them best” — and communicate a strong narrative of purpose, confidence, and resilience. Trilogy, the name of the work, was partially made for her degree show in 1982 and marks the start of Claudette Johnson’s exploration of the representation of black people, challenging how non-white women are stereotypically portrayed in Western art.

Claudette Johnson gained recognition during the 1980s while studying art in Wolverhampton. She began her career as a member of the BLK Art Group, a group of young Black artists questioning the position of Black creatives within the British art establishment. This history becomes particularly apparent in her self-portraits, where she positions herself within Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or introduces Picasso’s African masks beside her image, engaging in a visual dialogue with him. Her relationship with Picasso is nuanced: she pays tribute to his portrayal, attributing strength and warrior-like qualities to his female figures, while simultaneously challenging and reclaiming the representation of non-white individuals.

Claudette Johnson, Trilogy (Part One), Woman in Blue; Trilogy (Part Two) Woman in Black; Trilogy (Part Three) Woman in Red (1982–86)

In the second room, we encounter her more recent paintings, now also including portraits of men, Johnson demonstrates an evident evolution in style and approach to the subject. Faces are portrayed monochromatically, with subtle pastel modulations applied by the direct contact of the artist’s hand to the material, implying a more intimate, haptic connection to the skin. In contrast, bodies and clothing adopt a more expressive, colourful, and unfinished quality. The deliberate separation of face and body creates a distinctive visual dynamic, signalling a shift towards stylisation and a focus on the psychological presence of the sitters. Johnson’s subjects are real, everyday people, in ordinary poses, but nonetheless comfortable in their placement on the gallery walls. They are where they belong.

Claudette Johnson, Figure with Raised Arms, 2017. Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London

It is not only Picasso who is called out. As we step out of the exhibition, we see works by Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Modigliani, among many other Impressionist and Post-impressionists artists whose paintings were influential for the construction of the Western canon of portraiture. Johnson’s representation of black subjectivity, not only confronts these works, but also references their stylistic influence and her ability to embrace a similar visual register. Note, for instance, how well she uses the line, just like Daumier’s drawings and the mastery of Degas’s pastel paintings.

Claudette Johnson, Detail of Figure in Blue, 2018

At a time when prominent UK arts institutions are amplifying women’s voices, The Courtauld has taken a significant step by presenting its first-ever exhibition dedicated to a black woman. Claudette Johnson’s body of work, focused on reshaping the social status and representation of black women, adds a poignant voice to this contemporary dialogue and introduces an elegant counterpoint to the permanent collection of The Courtauld.

Ana Teles for London Art Walk
November 2023