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At the end of September an exhibition at the Alpine Club in London presents a collection of oil and watercolour paintings “that reveal dramatic changes to the world’s glaciers over the past century”.
The exhibition is curated by Janet Johnson, American artist, and painter of mountains and the mountain environment. In the first of a series of interviews with mountain artists The Armchair Mountaineer is lucky enough to have spoken to Janet about her art, ahead of the exhibition. You can also find links to her web site at the end of the article.
AM: What was or is the thought process and the inspiration behind this exhibition and what can we expect to see?
JJ: The Glory of the Glacier exhibit was inspired by viewing the Alpine Club collection one day, in storage. From that day I was inspired to compare that great collection with contemporary mountain artists who are also associated with the club. There is a rich tradition of mountaineers also painting as they climbed in the Alps, to record their travels as well as making scientific observations. Edward Whymper, for example, is well known for his sketches of the Matterhorn and indeed further afield.
The subject itself (the state of glaciers) is of course very important to anyone climbing, skiing and hiking in the mountains so we are matching a few old paintings of glaciers that are well known to have retreated a lot recently, for example the Argentière glacier and the Mer de Glace in Chamonix.
AM: Turning to your own work, why did you choose to make mountains one of your primary subjects?
JJ: After my first alpine walk and when I stepped on a glacier along the haute route, from Argentière to Zermatt, I knew I found a life long subject. The Milky Way arching above the Bertol Hut at 4 am was perhaps the single moment when I became hooked. My love of the Hudson River School of American painters all made sense when I actually experienced a sublime landscape which I had struggled across on foot.
AM: So, where did you actually learn your craft?
JJ: My mother was an artist and I sat drawing with her when I was young, then I completed more formal study of drawing and oil painting at Tyler School of Art, Temple University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania I the USA. Through Tyler I went to study in Rome and then returned to Florence for a masters of fine art degree, from Villa Schifanoia. Even though I was in Florence, the center of Renaissance art, the painting I visited the most in the Uffizi Gallery was a Goya. The receding blue of the horizon as construct for distance is what I took away from studying all the paintings. It made sense to me years later.
AM: It seems to me that mountains, indeed the outdoors in general, poses obvious difficulties to the painter. Talk us through your process - how much of your work is painted in situ?
JJ: I paint small watercolour sketches on paper, then take photos to make sure I have the right shape of various mountains if they are particularly famous, then download the memories onto paper by painting as soon as get back to my studio or in a hotel room after being in the mountains. It is difficult to get out paints when one may be hanging off a rope, or about to descend a steep couloir on skis.
AM: And do you find that your style has changed over the years?
JJ: My style has changed since I have started painting mountains. It has become more about recreating what I saw or experienced than about making cutting edge art. Just painting sparkling snow is a challenge enough.
AM: Is there a particular medium you favour or perhaps that you find most effective for conveying the magic of mountains?
JJ: I use watercolour as it is a beautiful medium that can be as challenging as negotiating a steep snow slope on skis, as one has keep one’s wits about them to spot the lovely nuances of the pigments blending with water before they change, and not overwork the brushstrokes. I have over 20 different blues and greys that I use for various times of day. Lately I have also been influenced by watercolour when using oils, staining the paint support with deep blues then wiping it off.
AM: For me one of the great wonders of mountains and landscapes in the 'real world' is the fact that, to the human eye at least, they need no composition. How do you deal with capturing the wonder of nature within the boundaries of painting?
JJ: I rely on what remains in my mind’s eye after I leave a place. The most evocative images keep floating around in my head until I paint them. A very few of the paintings take a few hours to finish, but the majority take longer, a few months or occasionally years until I am finally satisfied after they have been allowed to marinate.
AM: Are there perhaps some key elements in the composition of your mountain paintings?
JJ: The sky sets the mood of the painting, just like in the mountains the clouds will tell you about the weather that is coming or going, or if the stars are out or not.
AM: I have a kind of obsession with Monte Rosa which stems from childhood holidays. Do you have a favourite mountain range or indeed a favourite mountain?
JJ: I love the shape of the Parrotspitze, also on the Monte Rosa massif. We walked along its exposed snowy summit ridge last summer on the Italian Haute Route. One can see it on the horizon from all over Zermatt.
AM: In a similar vein, do you have a favourite mountain painter?
JJ: Gabriel Loppé is my favourite for the glow he creates in oil paint emanating from the glacier. Edward Theodore Compton painted beautiful watercolours of the Alps. In fact both these historical painters will have work on display in the Glory of the Glacier exhibition. I also like the Rückenfigur used by the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Also the Manet painting of the barmaid in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère looking out at the viewer as if one is in the painting, was a big influence. The foreground area of my paintings is designed to draw the viewer in by for example placing ski tips on the bottom edge of a painting of a couloir, as if waiting to drop in next
AM: Which contemporary mountain artist would you like to see interviewed on The Armchair Mountaineer?
JJ: James Hart-Dyke.
AM: Janet, thank you for your time. One last question to give us a clue as to what fans of your work can look forward to - what is next for Janet Johnson the artist?
JJ: Next year we are planning a trip to Svalbard - the Norwegian archipelago between the mainland and the North Pole - to ski tour from a sailboat and that will be amazing. I will be able to see arctic glaciers and icebergs floating by as we go ashore.
The exhibition 'Glory of the Glacier' opens at The Alpine Club on Tuesday 27th September before the evening lecture at 7:30pm. Contact the Alpine Club on 020 7613 0755 for opening times or visit the Alpine Club website for more information on the exhibition here.