The Magazine of South Carolina

An Artist Comes Home

Works of Painter William H. Johnson Were Shown at the South Carolina State Museum in Winter 1995-96

by Wim Roefs


Florence native William Henry Johnson, one of America's premier painters, came home to South Carolina in autumn and winter 1995-96. For the second time in three years, a major exhibition of his work went on display in the state. Johnson died in 1970 and several of his paintings are in permanent collections of South Carolina museums, but the new show at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia provided the best overview of Johnson's work to date.

The exhibition, William H. Johnson: A Retrospective From the National Museum of American Art, had a broader scope than the superb first overview, Homecoming: William H. Johnson and Afro-America, which was shown in the Greenville County Museum of Art in 1993. That exhibit completed its national tour in 1994.

"It is not just a show for African-Americans, although we do target an audience of African-Americans who normally don't go to a museum," said Lisë Swensson, the State Museum's former chief curator who organized the show. "But we also target whites. We want to show them somebody from South Carolina who did very important work at the time work that is still important."

"Johnson is tremendously popular now," said Katie Ziglar of the National Museum of American Art, which owns more than 1,100 of his works. The museum has published three calendars with reprints of Johnson's paintings.

"The work is very strong and it's novel because it hasn't been viewed in a long time," Johnson's biographer, Duke University art Prof. Richard J. Powell, told the Florence Morning News. "And people in the art world thrive on the new and novel."

Furthermore, Powell said, "his story is a rather extraordinary story. It is about a person with a modest beginning in a small town [who] then makes a name for himself in the world of art."

Johnson is among the giants of the rich African-American art tradition, which increasingly is receiving the recognition it deserves, both in terms of critical and popular acclaim and rising prices. With artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, Johnson will be among America's black artists who, a century or so down the road, well might be remembered as vividly as some of their presently better-known white contemporaries, such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns (another famous South Carolina painter).

A Retrospective included work from 1938 to 1946, the period that was exclusively the focus of the earlier Homecoming show. In those years, Johnson painted superbly composed, two-dimensional but very expressive, simplified but sophisticated paintings in bold colors. The work showed black life in Harlem and the South, as well as blacks serving in World War II, religious themes and scenes from African-American history.

In addition, A Retrospect showed Johnson's earlier work from Europe, where he lived most of the time between 1926 and 1938. In Europe he painted in the post-impressionist and expressionist traditions, influenced by Vincent Van Gogh and Chaim Soutine. In addition to portraits and still lifes, he painted many land, city and seascapes in Europe.

Asked once by a critic why he had moved from his earlier, seemingly more complex approach to the later two-dimensional, narrative style, Johnson answered, "It was not a change but a development. In all my years of painting, I have had one absorbing and inspiring idea, and have worked towards it with unyielding zeal: to give in simple and stark form the story of the Negro as he has existed."

On another occasion in 1932, Johnson said: "My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me."

Biographer Powell included the quote in his 1991 book Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson. It is also on the bookmark the State Museum designed as part of its effort to generate publicity and enthusiasm for its winter show. The museum also wants to work closely with the state's art teachers to help them use the exhibition as a teaching resource. It has established a William Henry Johnson Audience Development Committee, which is fashioned after a similar committee that in the winter of 199394 managed to generate strong attendance for the exhibit A Graphic Odyssey: Romare Bearden as Printmaker, the only other one-person show in the museum's history.

The museum added locally owned work by Johnson to the 54 works from the National Museum of Art, the Florence Museum of Art, South Carolina State University's I.P. Stanback Museum, the Gibbes Art Museum in Charleston, and the Greenville County Museum of Art. Some additional works came from private collectors in South Carolina, including some of Johnson's relatives still living in Florence.

The Florence Museum's most important Johnson painting, a large work called Evening, needed an $8,000 restoration. Evening is a painting from what many consider Johnson's strongest period, 193846. It depicts a rare South Carolina countryside scene of a couple with a child.

The show's tour opened at the Columbus Museum of Art in Georgia and moved to Winston-Salem, NC. In 19961997, the exhibit went to Kansas, New York, Nebraska and other venues.


JOHNSON WAS BORN in Florence in 1901 and became an artist in a time when the words "artist" and "Negro" were rarely seriously considered together by white critics. He knew his ambitions would be impossible to realize in the segregated South, so he moved to Harlem in 1918.

There, he graduated from the National Academy of Design, where he painted Self-Portrait, the most realistic painting in the Retrospective show. The lively, penetrating and subtle portrait indicates what Johnson's later work would abundantly show: that he did not lose himself in his perfect technical skills but used them to do more with less. He created powerfully expressive paintings with simplified forms, which makes his work immensely accessible on different levels for a wide audience, be it children, casual viewers or committed art lovers and experts.

Johnson moved to Paris in 1926 and worked there and on the French Riviera until 1929. He returned to New York and visited his family in South Carolina in 1930 but left again for Europe, this time going to Denmark. There, he married the Danish textile artist Holcha Krake.

In 1938, with Hitler's fascism on the rise, the couple sailed to New York, where Johnson joined the WPA Federal Art Project as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center. He met members of the Harlem Artist Guild, including Jacob Lawrence, Selma Burke, Norman Lewis and Gwendolyn Knight.

A year after his wife died in 1943, Johnson went home to Florence for the first time since 1930. In 1946, he returned to Denmark, where it became clear he was suffering from an advanced case of syphilis-induced paralysis. Back in New York in 1947, his artwork was stored, and Johnson was admitted to an institution, never to paint again.

In storage, the work including the Florence Museum's Evening almost rotted away. Then Johnson's court-appointed attorney ordered its total destruction after Johnson's savings, from which storage fees were paid, were exhausted in 1955.

The persistence of one woman saved the collection that now is recognized as one of the highlights of 20th-Century American art. Helen Harriton, a friend of Johnson's, convinced the attorney to reverse his decision. She asked the Harmon Foundation to become the caretaker of Johnson's work and personal possessions. The foundation, which promoted African-American artists, agreed (Johnson was one of its past award recipients).

After nine years of neglect in a warehouse, "many of Johnson's heavily painted oils on canvas (and burlap) were cracked and chipped beyond repair," Powell wrote. "Paintings on laminated wooden panels had buckled under countless temperature and humidity changes. And dozens of textiles and works on paper had been chewed down to shreds by vermin.

"After discarding the absolutely unsalvageable material, the [Harmon Foundation] staff found that an expansive collection was miraculously left: approximately 1,300 objects."

When the foundation dissolved in 1967, ownership of his work went to the National Museum of American Art, which distributed part of the collection to museums nationwide. Johnson remained institutionalized until his death in 1970, unaware of the developments surrounding his life's work.


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