Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

18
"In My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition"

William H. Johnson's Jesus and the Three Marys

RICHARD J. POWELL

As an American artist of mixed-race ancestry who matured in the climate of European modernism, painter William H. Johnson stands apart from the conventional primitivists of the early twentieth century. Johnson was part of a generation of visual artists captivated by tribal art, imitated and admired as the creation of exotic primitive peoples whose racial origins positioned them in a world of casual naturalism and mystical spirituality that had been lost to the industrialized West. But as Richard Powell argues, Johnson's connection to primitivism can be explained neither as a manifestation of racial essentialism nor in terms of the widespread modernist practice of stylistic appropriation from tribal art forms. Rather, it was a complex and deeply felt conviction based on his prolonged self-examination as a person of color who identified with traditional folk cultures and the experience of cultural difference.

Jesus and the Three Marys is understood here as a highly individual work of modern religious art whose formal qualities and emotional tenor are located in the uniqueness of African-American religious experience, specifically the expressive, physical mode of worship practiced by black fundamentalist Christians. Powell attributes to Johnson, as an artist whose works incorporate multiple stylistic and cultural sources, from European modernism to the Harlem Renaissance, an authentic "internalized primitivism" liberated from the degrading connotations with which the term has been encoded.

It is not only what we inherit from our fathers and mothers that keeps on returning in us.

-- Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts ( 1881)

Jesus and the Three Marys, by the American artist William Henry Johnson ( 1901- 1970), presents a provocative addendum to the current discussion on primitivism in modern art [1]. Unlike the level of involvement of many modern painters and sculptors usually identified as being artistically conscious of Africa, Oceania, and the aboriginal Americas, Johnson's commitment to primitivism was neither shallow nor temporary. His interest was a career-long pursuit, manifested at times in intellectual apprenticeships with traditional cultures and at other times in a bold painting style marked by intense colors and figural distortions. Moreover, in contrast to the identification of most artists who appropriated the forms and moods of non-Western artworks, Johnson's African-American background and his

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