Like many great artists, it is only now after his death that William H. Johnson has been recognized as an American master. His paintings are passionate, some say spiritual, especially those produced in the 1930s and '40s during the Harlem Renaissance. The shimmering images stand in sharp contrast to the poignant troubles that plagued the painter and his work during and after his short career.
Today, director Elizabeth Broun's museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, owns almost 1,100 pieces of Johnson's work despite his family's futile efforts to claim them. She explains:
"Johnson's life was a tragic one and he was out of the public eye for so many years. He was a forgotten figure, and it's for that reason that we feel such a special mission here at the National Museum of American Art to make sure people do recognize how important it is."
For the last 30 years, the paintings have formed the core of the museum's African American art collection.
"I love the paintings that he did of rural life in the South," Broun says and adds: "He often shows double imagery: two houses, two horses, two people..and he does it in a way that has a kind of rhyming..an internal visual rhyming."
Besides the paintings on plywood, burlap, and canvas are hundreds of images on paper, like the one of singer Marian Anderson.
Conservator Ann Creager:
"You can see that she's been bent, folded in half at one point in her life. Probably for a long period of time for it to have been that bad."
Before it was donated to the Smithsonian, Johnson's work was kept in harsh storage conditions out of public view. Restoring the paintings has been Ann Creager's life's work. She says the art was in terrible condition:
"About as bad as they could get. The paint was falling off of many of the objects. The paintings had been rolled and folded at periods in their lives. This is maybe why other museums did not really rise to the situation to accept his paintings into their collection...because it's a daunting challenge."
One of the restored paintings, a portrait of Johnson's parents, sits in museum director Elizabeth Broun's office.
She says: "The design is amazing. We see the mom seated in this rocking chair, which almost looks as if it's sort of an exploding chair - going in all directions."
Johnson's nieces, Isla Myers and Betty Vance, own none of the paintings. This year, Johnson's relatives filed a lawsuit to try to convince the Smithsonian or the federal district court to give them their uncle's paintings. A juge dismissed the case. The family is appealing the decision.
"I want the paintings back into the family." She explains:
"It's part of our heritage, and not only for me, for my mother and her siblings, because I think they went years and years and years without knowing what their brother was, how important he was."
The story of how and why the bulk of Johnson's estate wound up at the Smithsonian instead of with his relatives reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, filled with pathos and intrigue.
As a young man, the artist was stung by the rampant racism in his hometown of Florence, South Carolina. In 1918, he fled to study art in New York and later Europe. There he married a Norwegian weaver, Holcha Krake and spent a decade living and working in Scandinavia.
Art dealer, Steve Turner re-traced Johnson's steps in Denmark and Norway, where he discovered hitherto unknown works. He bought them to display in an exhibit that's currently at the Montclair, New Jersey Art Museum. These paintings, Turner says, show clearly that Johnson was a success during his early years in Europe.
"The general store owner in Katerminde owned two works. They're in this show," Turner says. He continues, "He was no ordinary American painter. And he demanded that and he sold his pictures and it's important the people know that he had real success during his career."
With the approach of World War 11, Johnson returned to the United States, where he painted his now best-known images. But the work did not sell. The Smithsonian's Elizabeth Broun:
"Well, it's definitely a fact that museums and collectors, the mainstream art world in this country, really ignored the great accomplishments by black artists for many, many decades."
Johnson's career came to an end in 1947. His wife had died of breast cancer. He returned to Europe, but collapsed in Norway. The diagnosis: a physical and mental disorder resulting from untreated syphilis.
Johnson never painted again, and his family lost contact with him. Eventually, he wound up at a mental hospital on New York's Long Island, where he died in 1970. What happened to his art is more complicated.
The Johnson family and their attorney, Melvin Gibbs, claim Johnson wanted the art to go to his mother. They have documents which they say prove the 1,100 works and Johnson's money were deliberately kept from the old woman.
According to Gibbs:"There is documentation, a letter sent by the State Department to the Social Security Administration talking about how they purposely avoided telling Mrs. Alice Johnson that her son had almost $8,000 when he was declared mentally incompetent in Oslo, Norway, in 1947."
Jaqueline Adams: "The reason being?"
Melvin Gibbs: "The reason being, essentially, here is a black woman, here is a small fortune, and they were not going to connect this black woman with this small fortune in 1947."
For Isla Myers, "Bac then, black people didn't have that many rights. I mean, if you didn't have money and if you didn't have position, or knew someone that had money and position to help you, you were just washed away..and I think, that's what happened with my family."
Fifty years later the facts are somewhat muddled. What's clear is that after his collapse, Johnson's paintings were hidden away in storage until his money ran out. Then a foundation took possession, and later gave the works to the Smithsonian.
Broun says, "I feel fully confident that the works that we have belong to us and that this is where they should be, and I believe that was really validated in the judge's opinion."
Despite the family's defeat in court, Johnson's niece, Betty Vance, is determined to own paintings by her famous relative:
"We're not going to stop fighting. They can forget that. As long as one of the Johnson clan has breath in their body, they're going to fight. And somebody's going to listen. "
Controversies plagued William H. Johnson during his lifetime, so it's little wonder controversies have followed him to the grave. This time, however, the recriminations have focused a spotlight on this long forgotten artist. In the process, they have won for him new admirers among art students and collectors.
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