William H. Johnson

William H. Johnson

The range of William H. Johnson's art is immense. His styles are as diverse as the realist/impressionist schools, Van Gogh like expressionist landscapes, as well as what has been described as "naive" art. A a child in Florence, S.C., Johnson's love of drawing came from his copying the simple pictures of the daily comics. Johnson's stayed in Florence until 1918, when he migrated North. He arrived at Harlem during the start of the migration and enrolled at the National Academy of Art under Charles Hawthorne and George Lorks. Upon graduation in 1926, Johnson moved to Paris under the urgings of Hawthorne. The European artistic community proved very imprint to to Johnson's development. They urged Johnson to devote his life to his painting. By 1930 his style seems to show signs of change. His brush strokes we elongated and "some what compression", as his paintings took on a Van Gogh like style. 1930 was also the year he married a Potter from Denmark, Holcha Krake.

Before his marriage, Johnson returned home, to Florence. Here he painted the local landscapes, re-exploring his youth. While painting "The Jacobia Hotel", a local brothel, he was arrested for loitering. This experience left such a bad taste in his mouth that he did not return to the South for another sixteen years.

Jacobia Hotel
William H. Johnson, 1930.
Oil on Canvas, 19.9x23''

Johnson moved to Denmark and later traveled to North Africa. Here he studied the "primitive" lifestyles of the Arab locals. This concept of the "primitive" is very important to Johnson. "My aim is to express in a natural way, what I feel both rhythmically and spiritually, all that has been stored up in my family of primitive tradition."

in 1938 Johnson return to America and worked with the WPA. This work provided him with what was to become one of his major projects, a discussion of the history, events, and peoples of the African American community. His art became concerned with the reworking of traditional religious images.

He interpreted the religious symbols in to black symbols. He also engaged the community in through a simple style that has been called "naive" or "primitive". This self-consciousness is in both construction and design. He casts the northern community in the colors and styles of Carolina. The simple geometric forms and brilliant "Carolina colors" allowed Johnson to beautifully and starkly understate the harshness and beauty of daily life in Harlem.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot
William H. Johnson, 1939.
Oil on board, 38.5x26.5''

William H. Johnson, 1939-40.
Oil on board, 36.5x28.3

His use of the African American community of both Harlem and South Carolina as well as a very conscience "folk" style of painting helps to show how the concept of "self" was linked to the tradition and change in Harlem. By casting an urban scene within a rural style of painting Johnson speaks to the sense of the new, urban, African American community is formed from the displaced parts of past communities.

Going to Church
William H. Johnson.
Oil on burlap, 38x45.5''

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