An exhibition of artworks by William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery tells the story of a gifted painter’s search for authenticity – and the tale of an artistic legacy rescued from obscurity.
Johnson’s career traces a captivating course from his Afro-American origins in the rural south, through his cosmopolitan art education and embrace of European modernist innovations, and his final rejection of them in favor of a folk-art style. This compelling show mainly focuses on expressionist canvases made in Europe and Johnson’s later elemental figurative works.
Born in Florence, South Carolina, Johnson moved to New York City as a teenager, receiving his early academic training from Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930) at the National Academy of Design. After graduating from the academy, Hawthorne raised funds for Johnson to continue his artistic training in Europe. Working in France and Denmark, enamored with the expressionist canvases of Chaim Soutine (1894-1943), Johnson painted landscapes, portraits and still lifes throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Upon his return to America in 1938, Johnson’s work changed drastically, turning away from School of Paris Modernism toward African American folk art scenes of life in Harlem and rural South Carolina.
Two street scenes of Cagnes-sur-Mer here display Soutine’s early influence on Johnson. In the 1920s Soutine also painted views of Cagnes, an idyllic town in the French Riviera. Like Soutine, Johnson animated his Provencal streetscapes by warping the buildings in his composition. “Cagnes, White Houses,” 1928-29, is painted with fisheye distortion and “Street in Cagnes-sur-Mer,” 1927-28, is impastoed, a roughly worked canvas with a prismatic palette. Both canvases are impressive for integrating a sense of place with avant-garde pictorial innovations.
While working in the Côte d'Azur, Johnson met Danish textile designer Holcha Krake. They married and settled in Kerteminde, Denmark, a harbor town. A number of the canvases here were painted in Kerteminde, including “Fishing Boat,” 1938, and “Kerteminde Harbor,” 1938. Painted with a heavy touch that belies Johnson’s technical expertise, these works seem restless, striving for a meaning beyond a likeness. A painting of a vase of flowers, which simplifies the bouquet into rough orange knobs of paint, conveys this sense. In a 1934 interview with a Danish newspaper Johnson said “My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually.”
Upon returning to the United States before the onset of World War II, Johnson’s artwork underwent a drastic stylistic transformation. He relinquished his European modernist influences, creating intentionally naïve figurative compositions of flat, irregular shapes. Focusing exclusively on African American figures and religious scenes, paintings like “Blind Singer,” 1941, “Aunt Alice,” c. 1940, “Mount Cavalry I,” 1940, forgo modernist finesse in favor of unpolished expression. Arriving in New York at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson described his late style this way: “It was not a change but a development. In all my years of painting, I have had only one absorbing and inspired idea, and have worked toward it with unyielding zeal- to give, in simple and stark form- the story of the Negro as he has existed.”
Organized jointly by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Morgan State University, the works here are drawn entirely from the collection of the James E. Lewis Museum at Morgan State in Baltimore, presenting twenty artworks created over 16 years.
Johnson’s career was cut short by disease. Hospitalized for the last twenty-three years of his life, Johnson suffered from severe mental illness brought on by syphilis. While Johnson languished in a Long Island infirmary, his artistic reputation faded as storage fees for his paintings accumulated. The paintings in the exhibit were rescued from destruction by the William Harmon Foundation in 1956 and donated to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian, in turn, donated select artworks to several historically black colleges and universities, including Morgan State.
On view for one more week at the University of Pennsylvania, William H. Johnson: An American Modern opened in Virginia in September 2011 and has already travelled to eight host institutions. In April this show of soul-searching work will open at the Phoenix Art Museum, the traveling exhibit’s final stop, one last opportunity to see, according to the Smithsonian’s Anna R. Cohn, “the achievements of a remarkable-and underappreciated-artistic genius.”
William H. Johnson: An American Modern, on view through March 23, 2014, Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, 220 South 34th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 215-898-2083, www.upenn.edu/ARG
William H. Johnson: An American Modern, April 19 to July 13, 2014, Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Avenue Phoenix, AZ, 602-257-1222, www.phxart.org
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