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Reviews367 Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson. Richard J. Powell. National Museum of American Art, 1991. 255 pp. Cloth, $45.00. Reviewed by Jessie Poesch, professor emerita of art history at Tulane University. She is the author ofThe Art of the Old South: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and the Products of Craftsmen, 1560-1860, and Newcomb Pottery: An Enterprise for Southern Women, 1895-1940. The last twenty years or so have seen a growing number of substantial studies devoted to African American art, necessary since so much of this work has been virtually ignored in earlier surveys of American art. Richard Powell's study of the life and work of William H. Johnson is one of these. It is well written, thoroughly documented, and beautifully illustrated . His interpretations of individual paintings are particularly fine. Johnson (1904-70) grew up in Florence, South Carolina, within the segregated but secure black community of the time. In 1918 he migrated to New York. In 1921, aspiring to become a newspaper cartoonist, he was admitted to the conservative National Academy of Design. But instead of pursuing a career in journalism, he developed great skill as an academic painter; a beautiful still life, a self-portrait, and some landscapes survive. Upon graduation , his mentor, Charles W. Hawthorne, raised money for Johnson to study for a year in Paris, a mecca for artists. Hawthorne also felt Johnson would suffer discrimination in the U.S., although the young painter apparently enjoyed some camaraderie with fellow artists of various ethnic backgrounds at the academy. The stay abroad lasted from 1926 to the fall of 1929. During a 1929-30 visit to the U.S. Johnson was awarded the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence in Fine Arts. His work in a short-lived exhibit of American Negro Art was praised for "blazing a new trail in Negro art" and simultaneously criticized by others for too much influence of French modernism. He then visited his hometown for the first time in twelve years, was honored with a one-day exhibit at the local YMCA, and did a few paintings of relatives and familiar landscapes. (Powell refutes the myth that Johnson was arrested while painting out-of-doors.) He also met Alain Locke in Washington , D.C., staying several days with the distinguished advocate of the New Negro arts movement. He returned to Europe, where he married the Danish textile artist and weaver, Holcha Krake, whom he had met the year before. Johnson's second stay in Europe lasted eight years, from 1930 to 1938. The villages where he and his wife lived in Denmark and Norway accepted the couple's mixed-marriage . Johnson's style underwent subtle changes, with boldly defined forms becoming ever more colorful. Most paintings were of landscapes; his figure subjects were of ordinary working people. In 1938, after Johnson's artist brother-in-law lost his job in Hitler's Germany for work deemed "degenerate," and with the shadow of the Nazis looming large, the couple moved to New York. For a time in 1939 Johnson secured a job with the WPA's local Federal Art Project, an agency that in general advocated American scene painting. He was assigned to teach at the Harlem Community Center. After his 1929-30 visit Johnson had maintained some contact with the Harmon Foundation and Locke, but now he was immersed in the articulate, self-consciously aware Negro culture that had evolved in Harlem's black community during the late 1920s and the 1930s. At the same time he and Holcha were part of the international community of artists based in Greenwich Village, includingJohn Gra- 368Southern Cultures ham, the Russian-bom artist, collector, dealer in African art, and curiously seminal figure in the history of abstract expressionism. As a result of this confluence of experiences and influences, Johnson further modified his style and subject matter. Using African American figure subjects, he created a simple , seemingly naive style of bold, strong outlines, sometimes with exaggerated gestures and proportions, and with almost flat areas of bright colors. These oil paintings include some gutsy, insouciant depictions, full of vitality, of rather flashy characters such as those in Cafe and Street...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 367-369
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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