Learning from Exhibitions: William H. Johnson's World on Paper

Article excerpt

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the repository for the largest and most complete collection of artworks by the renowned African-American artist, William H. Johnson (1901-1970). Over the years, the museum has done much to preserve and document this significant collection, but, for the public, a new nationally traveling exhibition will finally allow them to see a large selection of these original works on paper, up close and personal.

The Smithsonian has featured the paintings of modernist William H. Johnson in three exhibitions over 25 years, drawn from their collection of more than 1,000 works. Now, never-before-exhibited prints by the artist reveal him to be as inventive and powerful with graphic media as with oils and tempera.

Johnson's distinctive work uses bold compositions and bright colors, and his woodcuts are strongly influenced by German Expressionist art. Often regarded as an overlooked or neglected artist, this exhibition promises to restore William H. Johnson to his proper place in American art history.

Johnson led an extraordinary life. Born in Florence, S.C., at the dawn of the 20th century to a poor African-American family, William Henry Johnson moved to New York at age 17. He saved money for art lessons and was admitted to the prestigious National Academy of Design, where he mastered its rigorous standards. He excelled in the art of painting, winning numerous awards and the respect of fellow students and teachers. Upon his graduation, and with funds raised by a former teacher, Johnson spent the late 1920s in France studying the techniques of modernism.

Paris was a vibrant, exciting town for the young, impressionable Johnson. He met many aspiring and established artists and writers from around the world. He was even fortunate enough to settle in the former studio of James McNeill Whistler. It was also in Paris that he met and later married the Danish artist Holcha Krake. During the 1930s, they lived in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in folk expression in art began to influence his work. This exhibition's images include cityscapes in France and landscapes in Scandinavia, as well as Southern cotton patches and Harlem streets in post-Depression-era America.

In 1938, the couple moved to the United States, where Johnson began depicting his rural South Carolina family and their community in brightly colored paintings with simplified form and stark detail. Johnson and his wife Holcha ultimately settled in New York, where African-American culture remained charged with an energy sparked by the 1920s flowering of artistic expression known as the "Harlem Renaissance." Johnson expressed the vitality of the urban Harlem community and its blues and jazz culture in many of his paintings.

He joined the WPA Federal Art Project and was assigned to a teaching position at the Harlem Community Art Center. There he met Gwendolyn Knight, Selma Burke, Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence and other members of the Harlem Artists Guild. This was an exciting time for black artists and intellectuals--the 1940s was a decade when artists and intellectuals achieved wider recognition and greater profits for their accomplishments, while still maintaining ties to African-American social, cultural and political realities. …