Arts » Visual Art

His People

The quiet campaign of William H. Johnson

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William H. Johnson's "Ring Around the Rosey," an oil painting on cardboard from 1944, three girls, two burnt sienna and one bronze, dance in a circle with long legs and bare feet. Orange flowers spring from behind the trio, as if radiating from their limbs and dresses.

The first two girls watch each other's faces, a pair of rounded cones with sloping triangular noses. Their arms knot together into one smooth bulb marked only by white oval fingernails. The third girl faces the viewer, smiling broadly. Her face is nothing but two mismatched eyes and a mouth, but the abundance of joy is unmistakable.

This is one of the rare pictures of unambiguous happiness in William H. Johnson: An American Modern, on display now at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibition displays 22 works by Johnson (1901-1970), whose short but troubled career is now one of the most appreciated Modernist experiments from the United States and a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance.

As an African American of the mid century, his work garnered little mainstream attention. However, though Johnson lived in the art-capital of New York and knew successful black artists like Charles Alston and Ellis Wilson, he was intensely private. Furthermore, the final half of Johnson's life, beginning with the death of his wife Holcha Krake in 1944, was one of hobbled suffering. He quit and restarted painting at least once, and in 1956, mental and physical decline attributed to syphilis finally ended his productivity.

Between his return from a decade-long European exile in 1938 and the close of his career, Johnson's work was animated with loving purpose. After repatriating, he wrote to a prospective patron of the "development" of the artistic project he needed to pursue: "This development shall continue for the rest of my life and is the painting of my own people. My travels taught me that to create an artist must live and paint in his own environment."

Johnson's aim was to represent and dignify the lives of African Americans. This undertaking not only encompassed rendering episodes from black life, but also drew upon folk aesthetics.

The gouache "Sowing" depicts a man plowing behind a mule and hatted woman throwing seeds. Shapes are simple and shaky, deliberate departures from Johnson's realist academic education and attempts to emulate naïve art. Rows of bars and stripes stand out everywhere. The tilled earth is marked with plow-lines, a hill in the background is striped brown and green, and a house is crossed with bars of two shades of blue. In "Ring Around the Rosey" and the gauche of a jazzy couple "Jitterbugs," heavily lined floorboards also assert themselves.

Art historian Leslie King-Hammond, writing in the exhibition's self-titled catalogue, argues that Johnson's fixation with striped geometry was a visual reference to the patterns of black American quilts and African textiles.

During his wife's terminal illness of 1943, Johnson turned to religious subject matter, particularly New Testament scenes. Besides offering radiant kindness and ennobled suffering, these works continued the artist's "development" with the then-radical depiction of Jesus and his followers as African American. (In the selection of works at CMA, almost all of Christ's followers are also, intriguingly, female.) "Christ Crucified" presents a gold-skinned messiah lowering his haloed head, to the dismay of a similarly haloed quartet of women. They wear the striped and spotted dresses of African garb.

The existence sketched in Johnson's work is of fright, toil and flashes of elation—it could be of any time and place, but at the same time is unshakably of the world he found it in.

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