In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan. Carl Randall in the National Portrait Gallery.

Carl Randall, Shinjuku

Carl Randall, Shinjuku

A little while ago I visited the 2013 edition of the BP Portrait Award exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was my first encounter with the work of the British painter Carl Randall. He is the winner of BP’s Travel Award 2012 and as such traveled to Japan to work on various portraiture projects.

I was immediately drawn to his large size horizontal painting of the Shinjuku district in Tokyo. As Shinjuku station is one of the busiest train stations in the world, the area is always packed with people. And so is Randall’s painting. Truly impressive is the way how Randall depicts this crowd, not a collection of vague and anonymous faces, but a balanced composition with many, many individual portraits. During his various stays in Japan in the period 2005-2013, Randall has had more than thousand people sitting before him as model for his portraits.

In June 2012 Randall traveled along the Tokaido, or better, its modern counterpart. This highway between Tokyo (Edo) and Kyoto has become famous through the many landscape woodblock prints of the route’s 53 stations by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). In the footsteps of Hiroshige, Randall portrayed the people in the various towns and their daily environments in small A3 size paintings.
Randall’s work is not a literal remake of Hiroshige’s Tokaido and how his 53 stations look today, but the Tokaido served as a starting point to depict contemporary urban and rural Japan. The paintings are not cliché images of an exotic country, but multifaceted portraits of Japan and its people. A generally recurring theme is that of urban alienation, which Randall describes as “the idea of people sharing the same physical space, but mentally existing in different worlds”(p. 79 in BP Portrait Award 2013).

Randall’s works are a great pleasure to look at and present a fascinating image of Japan through the eyes of a skilled portrait painter, working in a clean, detailed style. Among my favorite paintings are Mr Kitazawa’s noodle bar; Sushi and Shinjuku. Many more are illustrated in the publication Japan Portraits, Paintings and Drawings Made in Japan 2005-2013.

Carl Randall, Sushi

Carl Randall, Sushi

The exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery runs until September 15. Afterwards it will travel to the Aberdeen Art Gallery (2 November 2013 – 1 February 2014) and the Wolverhampton Art Gallery (3 March – 14 June 2014). From 16 January to 12 March 2014, a solo exhibition entitled Tokyo Portraits will be on display at The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London.

For a documentary showing Randall at work in Japan, see vimeo or youtube. Also worth a  visit for an overview of Randall’s work is the artist’s website. Here, links to his facebook and twitter pages can be found.

Carl Randall, Japan Portraits, Paintings and Drawings Made in Japan, 2005-2013, Hawkeye Press Ltd., 2013. 118 pages. ISBN 9780992608903. With contributions by Desmond Morris and Donald Richie. This publication is available at The National Portrait Gallery till the end of September, and on Amazon.

National Portrait Gallery, BP Portrait Award 2013, London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2013. 88 pages. ISBN 9781855144620.