Carl Randall paintings

Many thanks to Carl for answering my questions! All images reprinted with kind permission of the artist. To see more of his work and read his latest news, visit his website

I first saw the work of British artist Carl Randall at the 2012 BP Portrait award at the National Portrait Gallery in London where one of his paintings was the recipient of the ‘BP Travel Award’ for that year. This is an annual prize which gifts the winning artist with the opportunity to travel abroad and develop new portraiture work inspired by their experience and research. The winning entry, the large-scale Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar painted in oil on canvas (Randall also paints in acrylic and ink) was based on Randall’s local noodle restaurant in Tokyo where he had lived for a number of years.

Carl Randall Mr Kitazawa's Noodle Bar


With his award Randall proposed to repeat the journey made by the great 19th century Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcut artist Utagawa (also known as Ando) Hiroshige (1797–1858) along the old Tōkaidō road, which linked the Shōgun’s capital, Edo, (now modern Tokyo) to the imperial capital, Kyōto. Hiroshige is much less well known in the West than his contemporary Hokusai, thanks to the latter’s very famous Great Wave print and other views of Mount Fuji, but was just as talented.

In his wonderful series of woodblock prints The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tōkaidō Road  Hiroshige depicted the landscapes he encountered and the people he met at the different ‘stations’ (rest stops) of the Tōkaidō road, in all walks of life and various different jobs and going about their daily business throughout the changing seasons. The series proved so popular that Hiroshige eventually created 30 different series of prints on the same subject.

Travelling the same route 180 years later, Carl Randall proposed to use his BP Travel Award to explore modern Japan and its people in the same way as Hiroshige, painting the now very different environments as he experienced them today. The result was an exhibition a year later called ‘In the footsteps of Hiroshige: The Tokaido Highway and Portraits of Modern Japan’, shown at The National Portrait Gallery from 20th June – 15 September 2013 (some of these images can currently be viewed at the Berloni Gallery)

I was intrigued to see this show, having written a bit about Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar following the 2012 BP Portrait Exhibition. In a room full of hyper-realistic portraits that aimed to depict quite literally every hair on their subjects’ heads and every pore on their faces, it stood out as different and very original. For starters one might question whether it really was a portrait, or even a group portrait – with it’s urban restaurant setting it might appear to be rather more a depiction of a city scene. It turns out however that the people who appear in the picture were all posed by Carl Randall’s Japanese friends and colleagues. In many ways it could be viewed as a portrait of modern, urban Japanese society and of the isolation of the individual in perhaps any modern city. In other words a ‘group portrait’ that is precisely about that lack of a group; a certain lack of community.

In the noodle bar, the expressions on the faces  of cooks and customers are fairly impenetrable. They all seem tired at the end of a day and as if on autopilot – no one is conversing, although two people are on their phones (as they are in many of Randall’s portraits), absorbed in a private world. It’s as if the removal of colour removes the visual overload of the neon-coloured Japanese city and creates a contemplative silence, reducing the natural clamour of a restaurant and allowing us to experience their weariness. The restaurant is clearly busy but there is no sense of community – the only point of contact which cuts through the middle of the image is the mutual clasping of the bowl of noodles being handed over by one of the cooks to a young female customer. It’s this that prevents the image from being one of alienation, and rather than being a sad painting I find it a moving one.

Although the painting technique used to make the portrait is smooth and meticulous and in that sense ‘realistic’, any naturalism is interestingly undermined in every way – the painting seems to me to be deliberately anti-naturalistic. Faces are harshly lit by the restaurant’s bright lighting and the perspective is flattened and distorted. The high-up viewpoint struck me as being like that of an observing black and white CCTV camera mounted in a corner – however since Japan is such a safe society with so little crime I’m not sure that its noodle bars have much requirement for security cameras, so this may be a little fanciful on my behalf! Instead, I think that with the deliberately ‘naive’ perspective which is reminiscent of many early European paintings such as this one below (a couple of Randall’s paintings are even triptychs, just like an early altarpiece) the artist is aiming to create a degree of claustrophobia, with the impression that the picture plane is almost about to fall in on the viewer. The strange perspective creates a ‘de-familiarisation’ and detachment, allowing us the space to reconsider the scene in front of us.

Robert Campin altarpiece

 ANNUNCIATION TRIPTYCH (MERODE ALTERPIECE),  1427–1432. Workshop of Robert Campin

Carl Randall Tokyo Triptych

TOKYO SUBWAY © Carl Randall

Randall’s journey through Japan in the footsteps of Hiroshige produced results just as interesting as Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar. Having been a long-time fan of all things Japanese and also a big fan of Hiroshige and of Ukiyo-e prints in general (Ukiyo-e means ‘pictures of the floating world’) I was especially interested to see a contemporary, modern version of the series, since during a wonderful month long trip to Japan some time ago I was nonetheless disappointed to find little trace of the largely rural and coastal 19th world depicted in paintings by the likes of Hiroshige and Hokusai. The urbanization of Japan is very striking and the countryside around the coast where most people live seemed so overpopulated and developed that the urban sprawl of one city often appeared to meet that of the next with barely a gap between to tell where one ended and the next began. Instead of the pretty, jagged hills I was hoping to see out of the Bullet train window there were endless housing developments (I guess the hills are actually there, but further inland!) and although most cities were still punctuated by the beautiful temples and shrine complexes but you had to search hard for any of the lovely old, traditional wooden houses and instead were constantly blinded by neon advertising hoardings. Japan constantly fascinated me with its wild contrasts between the traditional and the modern, as I watched women in traditional kimonos talking on their phones and walking past the Pachinko shops (a type of hugely popular arcade game).

Randall’s Tōkaidō Road series (see selected paintings, below) didn’t disappoint. His evocation of modern Japan in both the urban and rural areas depicted by Hiroshige was original and no pastiche of the great Japanese master – it didn’t reference those works directly and focussed perhaps appropriately more on the city environments than the countryside. It did however feel like a similarly intriguing exploration of a cross section through Japanese society – exploring how the traditional and modern elements intermingle in a way so fascinating and surprising to me when I visited. He has depicted the young and old from students, ‘salary men’ working in the city and farmers in rice fields, to tourists visiting the sights, and young women shopping in department stores. The paintings take on well-known Japanese icons such as sushi and noodle restaurants, Onsens, bullet trains, famous attractions such as well known temples and Zen gardens and beauty spots such as Mount Fuji. Yet this was no touristy, nostalgic, picture-postcard view of Japan.

As well as the Tōkaidō series, it’s worth mentioning the paintings of Randall’s Tokyo Portraits series exhibited at the Daiwa Foundation in London and at various exhibitions in Tokyo, with some currently also on display at the Berloni Gallery. These are typically large panels depicting the residents of Tokyo in various settings but often filled entirely with almost dislocated-looking heads, and like Mr Kitazawa they seem to explore the theme of urban anonymity – the interplay between overcrowding and isolation. Painted mostly in monochrome they are inspired by the packed and busy Tokyo streets. These are not generic depictions of people however, but again were individual portraits posed for Randall by hundreds of Tokyo-ites who sat for their portrait and were painted from life. This is an important quality of Randall’s work I think, and means that whilst most of his subjects may have very neutral expressions – neither happy, nor sad – and are sort of squashed together in their overpopulated city to form one solid mass, they are nonetheless highly individualized and therefore always interesting. Tokyo residents live pretty much on top of each other, and these paintings illustrate the point quite literally. No one in these large pictures is interacting, but a large number of them are on their mobile phones.

Carl Randall Shinjuku

SHINJUKU © Carl Randall

The Tōkaidō series were painted on smaller canvasses, and depicted people in different environments – some in colour, some in monochrome – in various rural or urban settings. These have a strongly narrative compositional quality like those early religious Western paintings mentioned above – the abundance of detail captures the eye and entices you to study the image. I wasn’t surprised to hear the artist cite the 15th century Northern European painters such as Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden as interesting to him for their analytical style of narrative construction (see interview, below). What I like about Randall’s work is the way that the narrative quality of his paintings is sort of set up and hinted at but never made explicit – instead we wonder at the slightly mysterious inner lives of their subjects and how they experience their environment. Any easy interpretation is resisted.

Carl Randall The Rice Farmer's Daughters


Often as in the paintings Zen garden – Kyoto – depicting the famous Ryoanji Zen garden – or in The Rice Farmer’s Daughters the people seem distanced and perhaps a little alienated from the rural and traditional Japanese settings, in which none of the details of modernisation are omitted – the countryside images being frequently sliced through horizontally by Bullet trains, rows of telegraph poles, amusements parks or banks of ‘tetrapods’ along the coast. The images lack the arguably bleak quality of the ‘head’ paintings but are just as delightfully strange and a little disconcerting. Heads pop up surreally – often talking on mobile phones – from rice fields and woods. In the paintings which are in colour, that colour is deliberately heightened as if put through a photo filter, adding a further element of slight strangeness. In Sumo the scale of the participants is amusingly distorted and we see another disconcertingly flattened picture plane. In Tokyo Subway you can almost feel the ache in the arms of the commuters as the exaggerated picture plane stretches those arms upwards.

Carl Randall Sumo

SUMO © Carl Randall

Carl Randall Tokyo Subway

TOKYO SUBWAY © Carl Randall

In fact this technique of deliberate distortion is not so far from that of Hiroshige and the other Japanese masters who whilst they fully understood perspective (unlike those early European painters) often manipulated it for evocative or symbolic effect. Many of my favourite Ukiyo-e prints take technically inaccurate but dazzling viewpoints, often from very high up. Hiroshige’s Sugara Street for instance places one on a level with Mount Fuji to view the ant-like people below. His well-known print Eagle Over 100,000 Acre Plain at Susaki, Fukagawa takes a stunning birds-eye view over the landscape. The high view-point and stretched perspective often used by Randall is a thus a well-established one in Ukiyo-e. He simply pushes it further to the point of obvious distortion, for emotional effect.

Ando Hiroshige Sugara Street

Ando Hiroshige: SUGARA STREET


Q. I like the way that in your paintings it is generally the social setting and the stylistic distortions that suggest the emotional tone of the image – rather than the expressions on the faces of the participants, which generally give little away. Do those neutral expressions reflect the famous Japanese manners and supposed social reserve? Or maybe they somewhat reflect the fact that you are a foreigner living in a society that is said to be hard to really get under the skin of?

Carl Randall: Thanks for the comment. I have heard the comment before that the look of the faces somehow suits the Japanese mentality, but it wasn’t my aim or intention at all. The neutral facial expressions aren’t deliberate; I don’t consciously make them like that. It just usually comes out like that when I paint someone, irrespective of nationality (I’ve painted Western people, and they have a similar neutral facial expression). In that sense, it probably comes from me, though I haven’t analysed as to why that may be.

Q. Looking at the images I’m reminded a little of David Hockney, and also very much of Edward Hopper who was one of the first painters to explore the melancholic and isolating quality of the big city way back in the 1940’s. Are there any artists who have been an influence on you? Which painters – modern or otherwise – have been an inspiration?

Carl Randall: Edward Hopper has probably been my biggest continuing influence. He directly influenced my early work made whilst a student at the Slade (paintings showing streets, windows and houses in London at night). Although I don’t look at Hopper much recently, he possibly subconsciously influenced some of Japan work, though only some of it. I really like David Hockney also, he’s very inventive and I especially like his early work, but I am not sure he has influenced me. I am generally interested in images combining people and places with a hidden narrative. Paintings executed with a fairly studied, analytical approach appeal to me, especially when coupled with an element of distortion or psychological tension – some examples being early Lucian Freud, Otto Dix, and early Northern European painters such as Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden. Many of my favorite artists are good draughtsmen and know how to create good design, but are guided by the personal or playful rather than the academic – Ben Shan, Stanley Spencer, Edward Burra, Peter Blake, Paulo Uccello.

Q. When I visited Japan the striking contrast between very traditional and very modern aspects of life – and the very restrained and also very unrestrained elements of the culture – seemed a little schizophrenic. But a friend who grew up there described it instead as ‘well balanced’….which I thought was an interesting perceptual shift! You address many of those contrasts in your paintings, and I wondered how the Japanese audiences have responded to the images in general, and to any of the themes explored within them?

Carl Randall: One comment I remember made by a Japanese person was by a visitor at The National Portrait Gallery last year, when my Travel Award work was showing there. He commented that when he first saw the works (before he saw the name of the artist on the wall), he thought the artist was Japanese. I liked this comment as it showed that the images displayed an understanding of the culture beyond the superficial or surface, and that I had somehow gotten under the skin of the place. I lived there for 10 years, and I think it took this time to build up an understanding in order to make the works the way I did. A comment by another Japanese person was that the images seemed very familiar, and had convincing well-observed detail, yet there was something slightly different about them, as if I was perhaps focusing on certain things that a Japanese artist wouldn’t.

I was asked by The Shizuoka City Hiroshige Tokaido Museum in Japan to have a solo show over the summer (where the Museum hung my paintings next to original woodblock prints by Ando Hiroshige), so that was a great compliment. I also won a prize whilst I was a student in Tokyo (where my painting was bought for the permanent collection of Tokyo University of Arts Museum), so I guess that’s another sign that Japanese audiences like my Japan work.

Q. I understand that each of the many heads in the ‘Tokyo’ portraits were painted from life – how long did one of those paintings take?!

Carl Randall: Each of the heads took between 2 to 4 hours to paint (probably on average 3 hours each), and there are over 200 people in some of the large crowd paintings, so as you can imagine they take time. I painted over 1000 portraits whilst I was in Japan.

You can buy a book of Carl Randall’s work and various prints at the National Portrait Gallery shop. His latest show ended at the Berloni Gallery on 15th November 2014. See his website below for upcoming exhibitions.


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