Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

religious fundamentalism and the centrality of gospel music to modern black religious expression. When examined together, Jesus and the Three Marys, I Baptize Thee, and a host of later paintings and drawings on African-American religion constitute a body of work that unequivocally celebrates black spirituality from both a liturgical and a sociological point of view. What is perhaps all the more amazing about these works is that they avoid the intellectual trap of a professed objectivity as well as the methodological pitfall of viewing black religion from an essentially European cultural standard. As expressed in these and other paintings, Johnson's 1932 pronouncement crediting his innate "family of primitiveness and tradition" as the guiding forces in his work finally takes a concrete form.

The rediscovery of William H. Johnson as an accomplished artist in Europe and the United States in the 1930s and 1940s and the reassessment of his contributions to art during those watershed years open up yet another tract on modern art and the concept of primitivism. As Jesus and the Three Marys demonstrates, the concept achieves a new viability when examined in light of an artist whose notions of "primitiveness and tradition" are undergirded by his social and aesthetic identification with "the folk." Johnson's quest for an authentic, inner primitivism took him beyond Paris (and his initial affinity for the Impressionist style), through the south of France, Scandinavia, Germany, Tunisia, and back to a previously untapped American source--a journey that demonstrates that the so-called Western world, too, has its share of "tribal" impulses. By articulating his primitivism primarily through his own African-American and Judeo-Christian background, Johnson compels serious reconsideration of a concept that is sometimes dismissed as a superficial attraction for "the other." When, as in Johnson's case, the artist is a self-conscious, willful, culturally grounded "primitive," one discovers in primitivism a profound and fascinating search--not just for a radical new image but for the very root itself.


NOTES

From American Art (Fall 1991). Reprinted by permission of the author and the National Museum of American Art.

1.
Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Painting ( New York: Harper, 1938); William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, eds., "Primitivism" in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern, 2 vols. ( New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984). Although published more than fifty years ago, Goldwater's pioneering study is still considered the definitive book on the subject. Rubin and Varnedoe's study continues Goldwater's investigations, tracing the concept of primitivism across national and stylistic boundaries and up to the 1980s. Unfortunately, neither work discusses artists like William H. Johnson, Frida Kahlo, and others who have actual as well as professed links with so-called primitive cultures. A serious study of these Third World (i.e., traditional) modernists promises an invigorating exploration of twentieth-century art movements and the cyclical pull in modern art toward traditional and primitive archetypes.
2.
William H. Johnson, quoted in Thomasius, "Dagens Interview: Med Indianer-og Negerblod i Aarene. Chinos-Maleren William H. Johnson fortæller lidt om sin Afrikarejse, primitiv Kunst, m.m.," Fyns Stiftidende ( Odense, Denmark), 27 November 1932, p. 3.
3.
"My father was black and my mother is Indian," Johnson was fond of telling reporters, "and both of these people have in them an artistic tendency which clearly has culminated in me." Johnson, quoted in Thomasius, p. 3. See also Dr. Rank, "Kunstnerisk Krydsning Kulmineret i København . . . ," Ekstrabladet ( Copenhagen, Denmark), 18 April 1933, p. 6. For biographical information about Johnson, see Richard J. Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life ofWilliam H. Johnson

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