Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Art Class

William H. Johnson  "Art Class" ca. 1939-40
Luce Foundation Center for American Art
This was painted when William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) was teaching art classes in a Harlem community center funded by New Deal initiatives such as the WPA. To me, it's a beautiful  example of the very cusp of the artist's most mature style, when his work was segueing from expressionism into what he is now most known for, his "folk" style. I think this piece with its deliberately primitive or "faux naive" look is just emerging from the German Expressionist influence of artists like Kirchner and Muellerevolving into Johnson's own very unique visual language.

Having taught night classes myself I can attest to how perfectly Johnson has caught the bodily weariness yet spiritual eagerness of the night student.

Johnson was born in South Carolina but left his home to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Despite his acknowledged talent, Johnson was passed over for a traveling scholarship and his teacher Charles Hawthorne personally funded the young artist for a study tour of Europe. This act of faith had a profound effect on Johnson, who remained working in Europe for over half his career, where he had great success and exhibited widely. He returned to the US in the 1930s with his Danish wife, the textile designer Holcha Krake, where he continued his vibrant career of teaching and painting and exhibiting.  His wife died in 1944 and this sent Johnson heading back to Europe for a time to be with her family, but he returned to the US after falling seriously ill in 1947. He entered the State Hospital at Islip, New York where he remained for the rest of his life. Sadly, his illness precluded his painting after 1956.

 I'll end by quoting directly from the website of the William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts, "This is merely the brief summary of a life marked by great happiness and great tragedy..."

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