When Claudette Johnson was a student in Wolverhampton in 1982, she saw a reproduction of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Its effect was double-edged: it freed her imagination but its appropriation of African masks was troubling to a young Black woman.
Johnson began exploring this conundrum with magnificent painting-drawings like And I Have My Business in This Skin and I Came to Dance. Both made in 1982, they’re fractured, but clearly depict Black women, who were largely absent, objectified or caricatured in art history. In both, a lone woman stretches into the corners of the paper, barely contained.
Johnson was just 23 when she made these works and their energy and distinctiveness is remarkable. And I Have My Business… is dense, rich in colour and pattern, the surface almost damaged by the intensity of her application of the pastel and gouache. I Came to Dance is sparer, the woman’s abstracted outline captured in a few lines, with just a hip and thigh and part of her face defined in more detail. Bold zigzagging lines cut through both pictures.
The Courtauld’s two-room exhibition galleries perfectly suit Johnson’s career arc. There’s a 25-year gap between the intense early period ending in an untitled drawing from 1990 in the first room and recent pieces in the second—in part due to UK art institutions’ systemic biases.
Linking the spaces is Standing Figure with African Masks (2018), which finds Johnson still puzzling over Les Demoiselles, while also looking back to her early paintings. Johnson looks down to us, with masked figures behind her, and that same bold geometric line cutting through the work. The volume of her body is more articulated 36 years on, with flowing paint marks and sinuous, beautiful lines that evoke Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and, especially, Edgar Degas, in the Courtauld’s collection nearby.
Whether drawing herself, friends and family from life or working from photographs, Johnson’s created some of the most poignant figurative art of the past decade. She combines intense bursts of colour and exquisite drawing with often largely untouched sections—breathing spaces that emphasise the sense of an encounter and of movement; a glimpse of a person who can never be captured entirely.
Blues Dance (2023)—a new work made from a photograph that evokes the blues parties of the Seventies and Eighties while being utterly present-tense—is among the best pieces here. Due recognition has been a long time coming, but Johnson is soaring.