Monday, February 18, 2013

Do the jitterbug

William Henry Johnson painted Jitterbugs (III) in 1941.

I discovered the work of William Henry Johnson not long ago and I'm so glad to have met him. An African American painter born in Florence, South Carolina in 1901, Johnson is becoming more widely recognized as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. And rightly so. 

His paintings -- evolving from realism to expressionism to an indelible folk style -- remind me of Picasso's Cubist period. The geometric shapes, the bold colors, the subjects often transitory and seemingly ordinary. But perhaps most important is how Johnson's work widens the lens of how the Black historical experience has been captured. He often painted witty and poignant scenes of daily life in New York City (jazz musicians, couples dancing the jitterbug, the Harlem Renaissance) to the rural South (black farmers, riverside baptisms, schoolhouse children). His own life is an American drama -- equal parts inspiration (overcoming poverty and a grade-school education) and heartbreak (facing racial prejudice, love lost, mental illness).

One of my favorites: Harlem Cityscape with Church (c. 1939-40).

Born into poverty in the Deep South, Johnson, like so many of his generation, had little education. His mother cooked, ironed and washed for white families. The eldest child, Johnson worked in the fields during the season and helped look after his younger brothers and sisters. His interest in art blossomed as a young child. He copied comic strips and often drew pictures in the dirt. At age 17, Johnson left South Carolina for New York to study art. But he worked as a cook and hotel porter in the city for several years, saving up for tuition.  

He enrolled at the National Academy of Design and steadily made a name for himself, winning several prizes and coming to the attention of teacher Charles Hawthorne, who took Johnson under his wing. Although he was acknowledged as the most talented artist in his class, Johnson was passed over for the most prestigious award -- a traveling scholarship to Europe. Blaming it on prejudice, Hawthorne took matters into his own hands and raised enough money for his student to go to Europe. In 1926, Johnson left New York and boarded a ship for Paris.

Hard work in the scorching sun. Chain Gang, c. 1939.

Johnson flourished in Europe, influenced by the prominent artists of the day including Gaugin and the Expressionist Chaim Soutine. He also met and fell in love with Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist 15 years his senior. Johnson and Krake traveled together extensively, mainly in Denmark and Norway, where he exhibited widely and produced hundreds of works. Though he enjoyed notoriety and established a strong reputation, financial success often eluded him. 

Fearing the impact Nazism would have on a black artist and his white wife, Johnson and Krake left Europe and moved to New York in 1938. But life was difficult there. He rarely found work and it was impossible to find a sponsor in Depression-Era America. Plus, the couple faced interracial prejudice.

Toward the end of the 1930s and into the early 1940s, much of Johnson's work depicted everyday life of African Americans -- particularly in New York. The most memorable being four paintings of the jitterbug, a dance craze born in Harlem that made its way into American swing culture just before World War II. 

Johnson captures boogie-woogie rhythms of mid-20th century
New York in Jitterbugs (V), c. 1941-42.

With two notable US exhibitions, Johnson may have thought Stateside success would follow. But the country's involvement in WWII turned public attention elsewhere and the untimely death of Krake in 1944 proved to be too much for Johnson. The grief-stricken Johnson began a gradual descent into mental illness. He stopped painting in 1956 and spent the last two decades of his life at Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island, where he died in 1970.

Johnson's life is marked by great happiness and great tragedy. But in my mind, he will always be remembered for the meaningful works of art he presented to the world. Filled with story, song and dance.

(Sources: The William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts; Smithsonian American Art Museum; and William H. Johnson by Carol Sears Botsch, University of South Carolina-Aiken)