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Modern Perspectives

Issued: July 2010

13 October 2010 – 23 January 2011
Room 1
Admission free

This autumn, to coincide with the Sainsbury Wing exhibition Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals, the National Gallery has invited contemporary artists Clive Head and Ben Johnson to display their work in two consecutive exhibitions in Room 1. Both artists paint the city, but for very different reasons, and with very different outcomes. The displays will reveal their motivations and working processes – and their fascination with the legacy of Canaletto. In the second of these two displays, Ben Johnson will be completing one of his paintings in public.

Following the example of Canaletto, both artists combine and manipulate 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 will be shown that will demonstrate how these two artists produce such apparently realistic paintings with differing techniques and tools.

Clive Head: Modern Perspectives
13 October - 28 November 2010

Clive Head’s paintings are about space. More specifically they are about creating a credible space for the mode of being in the city. Meticulously crafted, they show all that is seen as we move around our environment.

Head is a painter who uses the camera as a tool when devising his compositions, but he rejects its static single-point perspective and creates an open and dynamic sense of space that is akin to the way we perceive the world as we move through it. A painting such as 'Haymarket', 2009, (Marlborough Fine Art, London) presents a span of nearly 300 degrees and encompasses views that are impossible to see from one single spot. Instead, as viewers we find ourselves passing through the arcade to look into the sunlight on Haymarket and into the shadows of the shop interior. Moving back we can then imagine ourselves taking a completely different direction – down Piccadilly towards the famous statue of Eros in the distance. 

In Canaletto, Head finds an artist who, like himself, might have used optical devices to record the world and to bring information into the studio, but through drawing and painting he interprets this information to invent an alternative reality. Head’s painting 'Coffee at the Cottage Delight', 2010 (Marlborough Fine Art, London), presents his experience of being in a busy café in South Kensington and gives us a multitude of spaces to explore from both inside the café and out on the street. These situations are complex and full of human activity. The third painting on show, 'Leaving The Underground', 2010 (Marlborough Fine Art, London), originates in the artist’s movement up a staircase as he the leaves the fluorescent-lit passageway before stepping out into the rain at Victoria Station. Head’s treatment of the neglected peeling paint that he sees as he moves up the stairs, and the textures of the walls, ceiling and steps, recalls Canaletto’s depictions of the shabbier side of Venice. Familiar and yet unique, these paintings invite us to enter them and return time and time again.

Clive Head is an intuitive painter who builds space through an accumulation of brush marks that establish form and rhythm, and his paintings open up radical new possibilities of representation in the 21st century.

Ben Johnson: Modern Perspectives
8 December 2010 – 23 January 2011

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 London’s 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 Gallery’s Canaletto Stonemason’s Yard. Consequently, Johnson has based his 'Looking Back to Richmond House', 2010, on the rigorous geometric composition of Canaletto’s famous painting, with the bell tower corresponding to Nelson’s Column and the workmen’s shed to the buildings around Trafalgar Square. Like his Venetian predecessor, he subtly manipulates the topography to create an ‘ideal’ view.

Johnson’s 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 bird’s-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 artist’s 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. Johnson’s 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. Johnson’s city views are dream views devoid of people and traffic while Head’s 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 Gallery’s collection.

For press information please contact Eloise Maxwell at / 020 7747 2420

Publicity images for this exhibition can be obtained from

To obtain a username please contact the National Gallery Press Office on 020 7747 2865 or e-mail

Additional Information

Dates and opening hours

Open to public   
Clive Head: Modern Perspectives, 13 October – 28 November 2010
Ben Johnson: Modern Perspectives, 8 December 2010 – 23 January 2011
Open daily 10am–6pm, Friday until 9pm
Last admission 5.15pm (8.15pm Friday)


For public information, please contact 020 7747 2885 or

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN