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Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994)

Kaare Espolin Johnson was born in 1907 in Surnadal, Møre og Romsdal. At the age of two, the family moved to Finnmark, first to Jarfjord and then to Vadsø. Fine childhood years in Finnmark were followed by adolescence in Bodø where his father was appointed police chief and Espolin Johnson started school.

Kaare showed artistic talent early on and attended painting school in Bodø, before moving to Oslo and joining the National Academy of Craft and Art Industry in 1929. He was also a student at the National Academy of Fine Arts under Axel Revold and Halvdan Strøm. Life for a poor, unknown artist was by no means easy in his 30s. He took drawing commissions and sold individual works.

Espolin Johnson was plagued with poor eyesight from childhood. In 1941, he lost sight in one eye and developed cataracts in the other. Thus, he saw few colours, and consequently concentrated on lines and compositions, light and dark.

It was through illustrations in the weekly magazine Arbeidermagasinet that he first found his audience. Later he had his breakthrough as a book artist with drawings for the North Norwegian, humorous depiction of folk life Vett og uvett (1942). His depictions of the coastal environment and Lofoten fishing became particularly well-known in the drawings he made for the anniversary edition of The Last Viking by Johan Bojer.

Espolin Johnson eventually concentrated on printmaking, but worked in several different art techniques, including lithography, screen printing, scraperboard and mixed media.

Throughout his life, he had a close relationship with Northern Norway, and it is with great power that he has described the region’s dramatic history and the lives of the coastal people. Central to his motifs is man’s dependence on nature and the sea, and his struggle against the forces of nature. Which is portrayed with dramatic means in composition and technique, light and dark. Other, more poetic representations revolve around people’s relationships with each other. Often with references to his childhood in Finnmark, with experiences of the nature and light of the Finnmark plateau and the many different people who lived there. Telemark’s nature and people in representations that move towards the mythical are also part of his imagery.

But the experience of the special Lofoten nature and the forces of nature left deep marks. His first trip to Lofoten was in 1952, when he visited Svolvær and the island communities out on Værøy and Røst. With a view of the special and mythical rock formation Trenyken, the artist studied the stone, erosions, shifts in light and movements in the sea. He also inspired the traditional Nordland boats and fishing gear. The fishermen’s tiring and perilous lives through generations became strong motives. Among nature and people out on Røst, what he found was much of the inspiration for the works in the series “The Last Viking”.

Espolin Johnson made his debut at the National Autumn Exhibition in 1932 and participated several times in the following years. In 1987 he was invited as an exhibitor during the 100th anniversary of the Autumn Exhibition. Espolin was highly regarded in his time, and in several cases his prints were used as gifts on public occasions. He did decoration commissions in public buildings and decorated two Hurtigruten ships.

He is represented in several collections, the National Museum has 46 of his works and Espolin Gallery’s collection includes prints, paintings and drawings from the beginning of his artistic career to his latest works