PAR EXCELLENCE KAARE ESPOLIN JOHNSON, THE QUINTESSENTIAL LOFOTEN ARTIST
The largest collection of the prominent Norwegian artist Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994) is held at the Espolin Gallery in Kabelvag, Lofoten, which opened in 1992 as a municipal gallery on the basis of a donation from the artist. Espolin Johnson is well-known for his portrayal of the lives of coastal people in Northern Norway, and today the collection consists of 250 artworks. The local community is small with only 9,000 inhabitants, but over the summer season some 300,000 tourists visit the Lofoten Islands.
Espolin Johnson spent his childhood years in Northern Norway, in Vads0/Jarfjord close to the Russian border. When he was ten his family moved to Bod0, and from the age of 20 until his death he lived in Oslo; it was there that he received his art education from the Arts and Crafts school and the Art Academy. After finishing school he worked as an illustrator for many years until he became a full-time artist around 1950; it was in that year that he visited Lofoten for the first time, later returning there every summer for inspiration.
Throughout his life Espolin Johnson was tormented by his poor eyesight. He was born near-sighted, and when he moved to Bod0 received his first pair of glasses, which were quite strong, minus eight. Over time his eyesight gradually worsened and in 1941 when he was already an active artist he lost the sight in one eye completely. Around 1965 he developed cataracts in his "good eye", and his near-sightedness grew to minus 26. In 1972 he discovered a new world, the world around him: his good eye was operated on, and he gained normal eyesight.
In his works Johnson used a blend of different techniques in his paintings. He discovered scraperboard when he was a child: due to a power failure during a storm his family gathered around the living room table. Candles were lit, and the young Kaare played with the flame, holding a piece of paper over it until it was covered with soot. He then started scraping in the soot to uncover light and shade, or smearing it with his finger to create yet another effect - that technique became his trademark. Instead of soot, he would apply a layer of black ink on cardboard paper, and then by scraping with a razorblade or a pin he would bring out the white layer underneath. To develop the exact opposite effect he could apply white on black ink, scraping through two layers of ink. He experimented and found out that he could apply several layers with different colours of paint, remaining careful so that the top layer was always softer than the layer underneath. When the motif was revealed he would obtain different textures due to the hardness of the paint. He also applied a blend of techniques such as oil, watercolours, and cutting and gluing to create different effects. To gather the light in the picture, create a fog or to soften the white or black, he would spray white on black (or vice versa). He even used a toothbrush dipped in a thin blend of paint, and then sprayed the picture to attain the right effect. This technique is not used by many artists because it is so time-consuming and so revealing - mistakes are difficult to cover up. For Espolin Johnson this was no problem since he had already created the picture in his mind.
Placing Kaare Espolin Johnson historically is not an easy task, and he doesn't seem to comply with any of the "-isms" in art. His means of expression are distinctive, although there may be some resemblance to the work of Kathe Kollwitz, with something of the same background and a likeness in style and motif. In 1927 he started his career as an illustrator for "Arbeider Magasinet", a magazine whose primary goal was to create a varied picture of the literary, cultural and political movements of the time, thus sharing Kollwitz's attitude to the working class. Compared to Kollwitz, however, Espolin Johnson was more of a dreamer, while the German artist dedicated her life and art to depicting the social conditions of society. Over the years an aura of mysticism brought changes to the Espolin Johnson's work, seen in some of his pictures depicting ghosts that express sorrow and despair for those who have lost their lives at sea. The strongest of these are the motifs of Lofoten, representing Northern Norway's cultural history: fishermen and sailors, sea landscapes, native people and their rituals. Johnson's portraits of children are famous, too: his reminiscences from his childhood in East Finnmark close to the Russian border are connected with a vision of the Holy Trinity in front of the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Boris and St. Gleb. Another Russian motif is associated with the Russian prisoners of war who were transported to Norway for hard labour.
Kaare Espolin Johnson is an artist par excellence - a talented musician he brought the tunes of his vibrating soul to every one of his pictures, and the interested viewer cannot fail to catch those tunes and rhythms, and enjoy the master's oeuvre, whether it be tragic or poetically optimistic.
THE EDITORIAL BOARD OF THE «TRETYAKOV GALLERY»MAGAZINE EXPRESS THEIR GRATITUDE TO THE ESPOLIN GALLERY FOR THE MATERIALS PROVIDED.