Art review: ‘William H. Johnson’ at Cleveland Museum of Art

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Jitterbugs, 1941. William H. Johnson (American, 19011970). Tempera (gouache); 21 3/8 x 16 in. Courtesy Morgan State University William H. Johnson: An American Modern, was developed by Morgan State University, the Smithsonian and the Morgan State University Foundation, Inc. Additional support provided by the Ford Motor Company Fund.

We were sitting on the side porch of my aunt’s house in Hartsville, S.C. It was a warm fall evening, just getting dark, too late for the news, too early for I Love Lucy, but just right for enjoying conversation and gossip.

Gradually, we became aware of a great racket of honking horns coming from the center of town, punctuated with what I took for engines backfiring, but which proved to be shotgun blasts. My aunt tried to ignore it, but the din was just too much. I asked if it was something to do with the Darlington Stock Car Races. At first, she demurred, until my cousin said, with some heat and disgust, “Oh, come on, Mamma! You know it’s the Klan.”

That was the first time I had ever heard of the Ku Klux Klan, but I’ve never forgotten it. We didn’t see them ride through town, we only heard them, but the fact that my family was ashamed to name them told me more than anything else they could have said or done.

Hartsville isn’t that far from Florence, S.C., where William H. Johnson, a black man, was born in 1901 and had to leave first the South, then the United States to follow his talent as a painter and printmaker.

Through Jan. 27, the Cleveland Museum of Art is exhibiting William H. Johnson: An American Modern, which celebrates the artist’s work through 20 paintings and prints.

Drawn from the collection of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University in Baltimore, the exhibition follows the key periods of Johnson’s artistic development. The exhibition is augmented by two prints from the Cleveland museum’s permanent collection, including Jitterbugs III, Johnson’s most renowned screen print, acquired earlier this year.

The first exhibition in the new Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Exhibition Gallery shows Johnson’s versatility, ranging from early works in impressionist and post-impressionist styles to late works in modernist style. The illustrated catalog features essays by several art historians, including Richard J. Powell and Leslie King-Hammond (University of Washington Press, $26.95).

Johnson was a handsome man and wonderfully educated, once he had availed himself of the benefits of the National Academy of Design and various schools of art in Europe.

He left Florence in 1918 and, in between jobs as a stevedore, finished his education at the academy in 1926. It became clear to him that both racial resistance and his chosen profession would make it next to impossible for him to make a living in America. He moved to Europe and for the most part remained there until 1938.

As we look at Johnson’s work, we see that he completely absorbed what Europe had to offer in expressionism and abstraction, and had become a modernist man of the world.

He had studied the works of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Soutine and Munch. He had rented and worked in Whistler’s studio on the outskirts of Paris. He journeyed to North Africa and absorbed the culture there.

He lived for a time in Norway, but World War II loomed, so he returned to the United States in 1938, bringing his Danish wife, noted weaver Holcha Krake. They settled first in the Lower East Side, then in Harlem, where he worked on WPA mural projects and his own paintings.

In 1940 he submitted a proposal to the Julius Rosenwald Foundation that outlined his future objectives, among them being “the painting of my own people. My travels taught me that to create an artist must live and paint in his own environment.”

From that point on Johnson’s work resembles less the European modernists, and more the work of other African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden.

King-Hammond, in the catalog, points out that Johnson, a loner, didn’t frequent the “406” circle that centered on the Harlem studio of Charles Alston, as did Lawrence, Bearden, Ellis Wilson, Palmer Hayden and Gwendolyn Knight. Nevertheless, surely he saw their work, for the cartoonish flatness of his figures, the jazzlike rhythms of his compositions and the high-keyed palette all speak of similar aims and sources.

Moreover, Johnson was one of the few African-American artists who had actually visited Africa, and, as King-Hammond observes, “by the time he left Europe in 1938 he had begun to shift his style of painting from bold, expressive gestured works to flat, stylized, almost cartoonish pseudo-naïve imagery accented with bright contrasting colors and patterns.”

We see the quilt patterns revered in black culture in Johnson’s landscapes and domestic scenes. His subjects frequently don’t wear shoes, said to be a sign of Johnson’s awareness of the contemporary movements to set black culture free of its white inhibitors.

We are asked to read quite a bit, in terms of signs, symbols and semiotics into these paintings, and I have no doubt, given Johnson’s immersion in the European historical love of subtext, that much of that is there. But I strongly suspect that he also saw what was going on around him and decided it was time for him to join in.

And I also believe that the woman in the 1944 painting Aunt Alice, which is said to be his mother, was not called “Aunt Alice” by Johnson, but only by her employers. The title is laden with irony, and, I suspect, not a small amount of sadness.

Last summer on our way back from our annual trip to the beach, we got turned around in Florence and wound up errantly headed toward downtown. On the way, I saw a plaque erected to Johnson, praising him as an artist and native son.

In 1930, Johnson was arrested for plein-air painting in Florence. Then the town fathers thought better of it and gave him an exhibit at the local YMCA to smooth things over.

He didn’t return to Florence until 1944, after his wife died. He couldn’t have visited with her while she was alive, for she was white, and the South still had miscegenation laws back then.

William H. Johnson: An American Modern was developed by Morgan State University and SITES, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Henry Luce Foundation, Morgan State University Foundation Inc. and the Ford Motor Company Fund.

Several programs are being planned, including:

• Docent tours, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Fridays (Dec. 7, 14, 21, 28; Jan. 4, 11, 18). Free.

Do the Jitterbug! 2 to 3 p.m. today and Jan. 13. Free. Learn steps from Valerie Salstrom of Get Hep Swing.

William H. Johnson Family Day, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 13. Free. Explore the exhibition with a free family guide, learn jitterbug and make a collage inspired by William H. Johnson.

William H. Johnson: Primitiveness, Modernism & African American Culture, 2 p.m. Jan. 20. Free. Richard Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History, Duke University, tracks Johnson’s life and his shifting approach to painting.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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