Born in 1901, William H. Johnson has become one of the most significant African American artists of the mid-20th Century, conceiving a unique stylistic and conceptual fervor of figurative abstraction. Johnson called upon tropes that were intrinsic to the African American experience in the 20th century rural south. These included scenes of churchgoers, pastoral life, African American soldiers, Harlem’s new negroes, and portraits of both regular people and African American icons. His stylistic transitions from realism and impressionism, to an expressive figurative abstraction was an expression of expansive artistic education, and refinement to only the essentials of conceptual and visual design. During the 1940s his artwork became focused on depicting Christian biblical scenes featuring a black Christ, Mary, and other characters to recontextualize and elevate the concerns and circumstances of black people during the 20th century. It is crucial to investigate the use of religious iconography in Johnson’s work as essential to the portrayal of African American values, experience, and identity.
As an ambitious young artist at the age of 17, influenced by the optimistic spirit of the Great Migration and the philosophies of the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson took from his home in South Carolina, to the National Academy of Design in New York. He quickly distinguished himself as a talented pupil, with the mastery of traditional techniques in portraiture, still life, and landscapes.
In the 1920s Johnson chose to diversify his artistic practice by travelling to France for a formal education in Modernism. This pushed Johnson out of his established creative comfort zone in mastering traditional Realism, to a place of emotional expression and a reduction to Primitivism and Folk Art. He found the essentials of design to be a means of conveying simple and pure life experience and spirituality, while also displaying a deep education in design principles. While in Europe, Johnson met and married his wife, Holcha Krake, who influenced his work both in emotional content, as a subject, and stylistically. Johnson’s newly acquired brother-in-law, Cristoph Voll, further exposed him to German Expressionism, characterized by the practice of flattening subjects within limited planes of space, which he took to for the remainder of his artistic career.
Johnson later spent time in North Africa which further refined his stylistic interests to the reduction of design elements and attention to vibrant colors and geometric shapes. In these aesthetic principles, Johnson discovered a sense of tradition and foundation.
"And even if I have studied for many years and all over the world, . . . I have still been able to preserve the primitive in me. . . . My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me." — William H. Johnson quoted in Richard J. Powell, "In My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition: William H. Johnson's Jesus and the Three Marys, " American Art 5:4 (Fall 1991): 21 (Calo, Mary Ann. Critical Issues In American Art: a Book Of Readings. Routledge, 2018.)
Upon his return to the United States, Johnson established himself in this minimal stylistic approach, referencing a limited palette and abstracted human forms. His mastery of design was no longer executed through his talent in Realism and the European modes of Impressionism, but by the pairings of simple shapes, lines, and colors through which expertise was displayed by restraint. These images were vastly different from his previous, and unlike those of his peers. They were graphic in the layering of compositional elements and approach to color blocking, primitive in form, and informed by an extensive art education and globally diverse training. They did not securely wedge themselves in a genre of American painting, instead establishing their own dialect of figurative abstraction.
Johnson’s transition to biblical subjects occurred most notably in 1944, following the tragic passing of his wife to breast cancer. Illustration of biblical figures such as Jesus and Mary as African was, and remains, a radical act of autonomy, self representation, and reclamation of dignity and humanity. The stories of Adam and Eve, the Crucifixion, and David and Goliath are well known among all Christian denominations, establishing references for Christian principles and biblical foundations for morality; which when personified by black characters they then attribute the creation of humankind and organized moral values to black people. This remains a direct visual retort to the art of the Renaissance and images of a white Christ, commissioned and circulated by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations for centuries, and a refutation to the racist and oppressive propaganda of a socially and politically turbulent United States.
Johnson created an abundant number of paintings referencing biblical events including: Lamentation, 1944, oil on fiberboard, Mount Calvary, 1943, oil, Ezekial Saw the Wheel, 1944, screenprint on paper, New Born Babe, 1944, oil on paperboard, and David and Goliath, 1944, oil on paperboard, as well as drawings including Crucifixion, 1944, colored pencil on paper, Jesus and the Three Marys, 1939, pen and colored pencil on paper, Religious Scenes: Parable with a Woman; Come Unto Me, Little Children; The Temptation of Christ or Get Thee behind Me, Satan; Crucifixion, 1944, ink and pencil, Entombment, 1944, pen and ink on paper, Lamentation, 1944, pen and ink on paper, New Born Babe, 1944, tempera and pencil on paper, Adam and Eve, 1944, pencil on paper, and Come Unto Me, Little Children, 1944, gouache and pen on paper. The above listed artworks are all owned by the Smithsonian America Art Museum, only a few of their collection of works by Johnson salvaged and donated by the Harmon Foundation in 1967, which organized his first museum retrospective in 1971 following his death. The Luce Center, where a majority of his collection is held, refers to Johnson’s dramatic shifts in painting styles influenced by travel and a need to “paint his own people”.
William H. Johnson’s , Lamentation, was painted in 1944 following the tragic death of his wife. This depiction of a dead Jesus after the crucifixion is speculated upon as a self portrait in the anguish of grief. It is possible that Johnson may have felt sympathetic to the pain and sorrow of a crucified Christ or the grief of the women who loved and mourn him. This painting may also be reflective of the human tendency to revert to spiritual sources of comfort and stability, such as that provided by religion, as a way to make sense of and alleviate tragedy. In either theory there is a connection and level of empathy established between the artist and subject that both humanizes the image of Christ and elevates the crucified black man. The latter is especially radical as emphasized by the anonymous crucified forms of black men. These bodies visually reference familiar images of lynchings, which in direct association with the image of Jesus should be interpreted as a deliberate protest. In fact, in a similar composition of an earlier date entitled Jesus and the Three Marys, in which Johnson depicts the events immediately prior, with Jesus hanging on the cross as the three Marys mourn below him, Art Historian Amy K. Hamlin suggests that Johnson directly referenced his own painting Lynch Mob Victim, also featuring three women in mourning. (Romaine, James. Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018.)
The image of David and Goliath, 1944, does not align with the biblical illustration of a dominant figure who asserts himself with hostility over a weaker individual. Instead, this seems to be an image of peers, the difference in scale and skin tone alluding to a relationship between men receptive of wisdom and comradery, rather than divided as opponents in battle. This positive depiction of what is in many ways a cautionary tale seems to forge a sense of solidarity, even with weapons in hand. Armed with a spear and shield, possibly having been struck by a stone identified by a bright red mark on his forehead, Goliath smiles down upon David who returns his gaze. The brotherhood displayed is especially significant as it contradicts Johnson’s experiences of violence that led him to flee Europe during World War II a few years prior, and the racial violence he experienced at home upon his return.
Come Unto Me, Little Children, 1944, expresses a communal role and concern for the younger generation. Although he did not have children of his own, Johnson frequently painted scenes with groups of children at play and within the family. In this drawing especially, there is an emphasis on engaging and nurturing the following generations as an investment in the longevity of one’s mission and values. This scene is significant to those familiar with the stories of Christianity, for the special attention Jesus paid to those who were otherwise cast aside as socially insignificant. Whereas, his followers and present adults would have prefered he neglect these children, Jesus instead encouraged them to embrace and learn from him, his own character being childlike in its unadulterated expression of love and compassion. This small act of rebellion is not only generous and comforting to those who empathize with these children otherwise overlooked, but a lesson in tending to the meek as one’s legacy and potential. The group of children is diverse, distinguished by age, gender, colored and patterned garments, and brown skin tones, looking unto Christ in either profile or face on positioning. Much like his previous depiction of Jesus, this image can be perceived as representative of self, for its similarities in skin tone and facial hair. Jesus is adorned by a patterned halo, smiling with open arms. It is possible that in the absence of his wife, Johnson created this warm image in regret of not having produced his own children with whom he might have shared wisdom and legacy, or as an acknowledgment of the universal significance of even the smallest individual.
Although the life and career of William H. Johnson ended in tragedy, falling into obscurity at the hands of mental illness, emotional trauma, poverty, and neglect, his visual statements resonate timelessly. These images elevate black people to a status of divinity, and humanize individuals of godly stature to the same circumstances, struggles, and principles of a suffering community; catalyzing humanity and social liberation through the biblical values of love, empathy, and compassion.