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Getting real

Mennello Museum traces painter William H. Johnson's journey toward authenticity in American Modern exhibition

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William H. Johnson: An American Modern

Mennello Museum of American Art
900 E. Princeton St.

The life of painter William H. Johnson is a microcosm of American modernism. Like so many other American artists of his generation, he left his rural home to study in New York, then went to Paris to explore new styles and escape the strictures of American society, but his return to his beginnings completed his journey of discovery.

Born with the century in 1901, Johnson left South Carolina for Harlem, eventually saving enough to study at New York’s National Academy of Design. In 1926, despairing of the obstacles in the path of a black artist in America, Johnson left for Paris, where he soaked up the electric atmosphere of the American expatriates of the day (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein et al.), working and showing there and in the south of France. After exploring much of Western Europe (and marrying a Danish artist), he returned to America and joined the federal WPA art program in the 1940s; he taught painting in the Harlem Community Art Center alongside other notable African-American artists like Gwendolyn Knight and Norman Lewis. Eventually he returned to South Carolina, bringing with him all he had seen elsewhere but grounding his work in his Southern roots.

The exhibition William H. Johnson: An American Modern, on loan to the Mennello from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which holds the largest collection of Johnson’s work, showcases his personal and artistic development. We follow Johnson through the different stages of modernism until he lands on the folk art style for which he is best known.

Mennello curator of education Genevieve Bernard says, “You can see in the way we have the exhibit arranged that it is a timeline and a journey. You can see the artists he worked with and how it influenced his work.”

In the first stage of his career, from the late ’20s to early ’30s, Johnson tested the waters of Expressionism. The European influence on his work shines through in “Street in Cagnes-Sur-Mer,” a Cézanne-like landscape, and “Danish Youth,” a portrait of a young boy, both with characteristic thick, loose brushstrokes and muted-yet-intense color. In Johnson’s middle period, works like “Blind Singer” and “Jitterbugs” show him stepping into a new African-American culture that is intertwined with dance and jazz.

Bernard cites “Jitterbugs” as one of her favorite pieces. “It’s the first piece that is coming out of his heart,” she says. “He’s gone through this journey, [but] this piece says ‘This is William H. Johnson,’ and from then on all his pieces say the same thing.” It’s significant that many of these paintings are of dancers and musicians; this portrayal of black subjects creating and offering new ideas to society exposes Johnson’s intention to present a black culture that is integral and immersed in the urban landscape of an evolving America.

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