By Sharon Geltner
The man behind the exhibit Contemplating Character: Portrait Drawings & Oil Sketches from Jacques-Louis David to Lucian Freud, which opened Saturday at The Society of the Four Arts, has led as an interesting a life as many of the artists who created the fascinating 81 portraits in his collection dating back 250 years. And with R. Crumb and Lucian Freud in the mix, that’s saying something.
Robert Flynn Johnson owns all the works in the show and is also an author, lecturer and historian, with decades of curating experience in Baltimore and San Francisco. He is curator emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Since retiring several years ago, he has written four books, taught at Stanford University and is actively involved in the art world.
Along the way, he has mixed and mingled with talent as diverse and celebrated as Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy, Lucian Freud, Robert Crumb and Dita von Teese and has uncovered and displayed the works of often anonymous or forgotten photographers, which he unearths at flea markets from London to Pasadena.
Johnson, who will lecture Feb. 27 on the origin stories behind his art, will be in Palm Beach for the first time. He has previously exhibited his collections, including works by Degas, at museums at the University of Miami, St. Petersburg and St. Augustine and nationwide.
Johnson emphasizes that instead of flattering portraits of the rich and powerful, these portraits emphasize personality, individuality and authenticity.
“I don’t call this show, ‘Contemplating Physiognomy,’” Johnson said. “No, these portraits capture the personality and soul of the sitter, not just their features.”
“If you just want a good likeness. Get a photo. Because when you sit for a portrait, the artist wants his say, too,” Johnson said. “There are two stories behind every work of art. The artist’s and the sitter’s.”
The curator’s challenge: Choose portraits that accurately portray physical appearance and capture the sitter’s personality and soul.
Next, make his dream that of the visitors, by having a vision. In this case, Johnson made sense of the drawings by grouping them in themes: artists’ self-portraits, images of family and friends, portraits of artists, anonymous sitters as subjects, scenes of drama and imagination, images of fame, and portraits of repose (sleep and death.)
The exhibit displays a portrait of George Washington done by a French patriot, another of author Washington Irving and a drawing of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus, who stares into a pond and sees a bag of money.
Johnson delights in a pair by the 19th-century French artist Adolphe-Felix Cals,
Portrait of the Artist on a Good Day, and Portrait of the Artist on a Bad Day. The two paintings had been separated, but Johnson tracked the missing one and bought it to reconnect the two.
Johnson stresses that although he is not wealthy, he is buying valuable works of art that others often overlook.
“One of the reasons I have this portrait collection is that portraits are not that expensive, relatively speaking. Nobody buys them except when it is Napoleon or Sarah Bernhardt. Portraits can be the most boring thing on earth, such as a bank president who hangs in the hallway and is never looked at. But of the top 10 most valuable paintings ever sold, portraits were 50 percent of them, including one for $450 million. They can be really great!”
He added: “This collection was formed by a scholar on a scholar’s salary. These were apples on branches I could reach financially.”
But that serendipity adds to Johnson’s delight when visitors discover artists they never heard of before. “I get excited when people enjoy artists such as Hubert von Herkomer, whose self-portrait is on the cover of the show catalog. He was the favorite artist of Van Gogh, who viewed him with great respect,” Johnson said.
The exhibit includes Jacques-Louis David, Clotilde Martin-Pregnard, Dora Maar, François Guiguet and Alfred Dehodencq, as well as Aubrey Beardsley, George Wesley Bellows, Pierre Bonnard, William Merritt Chase, R. Crumb, Edgar Degas, Alfred Hitchcock, Thomas Lawrence, Maximilien Luce, Adolf von Menzel and Édouard Vuillard, among others.
“Collecting is a journey, not a destination. One of the wonderful things about being a curator is getting to be friends with accomplished people such as Lucian Freud,” Johnson said.
Freud (the grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud) fled to England with his family in 1933 to escape the Nazis. He became one of Britain’s foremost painters, dying in 2011.
“He became a good friend,” Johnson said. “For me, it was like a young actor being taken under the wing of Clark Gable.” Johnson later arranged the first tour of Freud’s art in the United States.
Among Johnson’s prized possessions are a David Levine caricature of Donald Trump that illustrated John Kenneth Galbraith’s review of The Art of the Deal for the New York Review of Books; and a portrait of Johnson drawn by Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood’s partner for 30 years (David Hockney introduced them). Freud gave him a portrait of his first wife and Robert Crumb gifted him a sketch he drew in front of him.
“He sketched it on the back of a paper placemat in a restaurant. It was stream of consciousness. The visual would be akin to watching Robin Williams riff for 10 minutes. It was done between ordering dinner and when it arrived,” Johnson said. Johnson has also stayed at Crumb’s home in France.
While Johnson has acquired Rembrandts and a Michelangelo on behalf of museums, he rescues unrecognized treasures. At a London postcard fair, he found a 1935 photo of the future Queen Elizabeth at age 9.
By age 25, Johnson was hired as a curator at a prestigious museum, but his path to the art appreciation was not direct.
“My mother collected antiques and attended Smith College. My father went to Bates College and became a brain surgeon. I attended several prep schools because I had differences of opinion with the administrators,” Johnson said. After landing at St. Thomas More in Connecticut, he became the valedictorian.
By the time he attended McGill University in Montreal, “the Harvard of Canada,” Johnson was married with a child but not a Canadian citizen and most work was off limits. Then he learned he would be paid cash for showing slides at art history classes. “I needed the bucks.”
Something else pushed him toward fine art.
“My first year at school did not go well. I thought it if I took an art history class, I could nail it. And then I fell in love and made it my career.”
Besides a fascinating path filled with fascinating personages and promoting lost art, Johnson’s current mission is to make his collections accessible in many underserved regions.
He said, “The U.S. is a big country. I love the fact that my traveling exhibits are affordable and my Degas collection was shown at Texas A&M. Now it’s headed to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. I am justly proud of that.”
Contemplating Character is on view from through April 2 at the Society of the Four Arts. 100 Four Arts Plaza, Palm Beach. Hours: Sunday, 1-5 pm; Monday, 10 am-5 pm; Tuesday, 1 pm-5 pm (Four Arts members only); Wednesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets: $10.
Note: On Feb. 27 at 11 am, Johnson will lecture on how he chose these works of art and their hidden origin stories at The Society of the Four Art’s Gubelmann Auditorium. He will sign the exhibition catalog (with 160 items) afterwards. Free (reservations required). 561-655-7226 or FourArts.org.
Sharon Geltner is the author of Charity Bashed, a funny mystery set in Palm Beach.