The life of painter William H. Johnson is a microcosm of American modernism. Like so many other American artists of his generation, he left his rural home to study in New York, then went to Paris to explore new styles and escape the strictures of American society, but his return to his beginnings completed his journey of discovery.
Born with the century in 1901, Johnson left South Carolina for Harlem, eventually saving enough to study at New York’s National Academy of Design. In 1926, despairing of the obstacles in the path of a black artist in America, Johnson left for Paris, where he soaked up the electric atmosphere of the American expatriates of the day (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein et al.), working and showing there and in the south of France. After exploring much of Western Europe (and marrying a Danish artist), he returned to America and joined the federal WPA art program in the 1940s; he taught painting in the Harlem Community Art Center alongside other notable African-American artists like Gwendolyn Knight and Norman Lewis. Eventually he returned to South Carolina, bringing with him all he had seen elsewhere but grounding his work in his Southern roots.
The exhibition William H. Johnson: An American Modern, on loan to the Mennello from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which holds the largest collection of Johnson’s work, showcases his personal and artistic development. We follow Johnson through the different stages of modernism until he lands on the folk art style for which he is best known.
Mennello curator of education Genevieve Bernard says, “You can see in the way we have the exhibit arranged that it is a timeline and a journey. You can see the artists he worked with and how it influenced his work.”
In the first stage of his career, from the late ’20s to early ’30s, Johnson tested the waters of Expressionism. The European influence on his work shines through in “Street in Cagnes-Sur-Mer,” a Cézanne-like landscape, and “Danish Youth,” a portrait of a young boy, both with characteristic thick, loose brushstrokes and muted-yet-intense color. In Johnson’s middle period, works like “Blind Singer” and “Jitterbugs” show him stepping into a new African-American culture that is intertwined with dance and jazz.
Bernard cites “Jitterbugs” as one of her favorite pieces. “It’s the first piece that is coming out of his heart,” she says. “He’s gone through this journey, [but] this piece says ‘This is William H. Johnson,’ and from then on all his pieces say the same thing.” It’s significant that many of these paintings are of dancers and musicians; this portrayal of black subjects creating and offering new ideas to society exposes Johnson’s intention to present a black culture that is integral and immersed in the urban landscape of an evolving America.
Johnson’s return to the rural South is manifest in the flatter, brighter, graphic folk art paintings of the mid-1940s. With recurring motifs of rocking chairs and farm equipment, Johnson presents a juxtaposition of rural family life and his modernist vision, again working in the idiom of his surroundings. But eventually he synthesized all of his influences, all of the things that made him who he was. At the end of his painting career (and upon the early death of his wife), his work began to incorporate religious iconography similar to that of the Byzantine and Renaissance eras. A stark difference from those movements is that these paintings feature all black subjects – including a black Jesus.
While the works in William H. Johnson: An American Modern are painted in a multitude of styles, the overarching theme of movement and action tie them together. Johnson moves from a complex aesthetic of texture and color to a style more simple and direct, where content reigns supreme. In his intimate paintings of black subjects and life, Johnson explored class, gender and his own personal worldview. This collection accurately tells the visual story of Johnson finding himself as an artist and articulates his commentary on African-American culture.
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