Johnson’s Paradox: The Lost Mind and Rediscovered Works of William Henry Johnson
by Tash Moore
“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.” (https://thejohnsoncollection.org/william-h-johnson/)
A black man is found wandering Oslo, Norway in 1946. This is post-war Norway, Quisling’s Norway. This man’s mind is shattered and he’s on a mission. He intends to marry his dead wife’s sister. Perhaps to make things right, almost Old Testament-like. He’s found with $6,000 in his pockets, the equivalent, accounting for inflation, of $79,723.38 in 2020 currency. He may not be the richest man, but he’s doing okay for a black man in 1946. If only his brain might agree. He’s suffering from tertiary syphilis or paresis and he owns 1,200 works of art, including his wife’s sculptures and ceramics. He’s a painter named William Henry Johnson and he’s on his way home. Not Florence, South Carolina where his mother and family still live. Not even to Harlem in New York where he made a name for himself as a young man in the 1920s. He’s on his way, in U.S. government custody, to a mental hospital in Islip, Long Island, New York where he will spend the rest of his life. His family won’t receive any of the funds found on his person or proceeds related to his work. Instead, they’ll get a bill for the shipping fees should his mother decide to liquidate the storage unit. A black woman in rural South Carolina, with no idea of the true nature of her son’s financial status, would scarcely have enough to live too comfortably; let alone pay the proposed shipping bill of $2,500. So, both William H. Johnson and his work sat locked up by the state of New York.
So, how did his legacy end up changing hands? Well, much of his work, like the man, couldn’t stay under the radar forever. Earlier in his career, Johnson, who’d shot out of Jim Crow’s South Carolina like an arrow—having started out learning how to draw by copying the comic strips in the local newspaper as a young boy—studied at the National Academy of Design, and later, the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He won numerous awards and raised enough capital to go abroad, loving Paris before moving on to the Netherlands:
“Arriving in Paris in 1926, Johnson thrilled to the city’s rich cultural scene and its participants. His friendships with modern artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and exposure to the works of Munch, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Soutine inspired him to experiment with color and form in ways that transcended his formal academic training.” (Johnson Collection)
Remaining overseas for much of the 20s, he met his eventual wife, Holcha Krake, a Danish artist who initially worked with textiles. His paintings became more complex as he courted her though their relationship was interrupted by a return to New York in 1929. A piece completed in 1928, Street of Cagnes-sur-Mer, looks like something one might see if they’d strolled about after drinking absinthe. The buildings curl and surround like teeth in a mouth that may close around the viewer. The tones are blurred and the lone figure on the street is a sandstone colored person without a face or identifiable hands and feet. Perhaps Johnson was feeling the joy and sadness that can come with distancing yourself from your identity. Having been a black child in the South, with daily reminders of who others said he was or how high he could hope to go, being free can also take a toll on the heart. In South Carolina, loving, let alone chatting up a white woman could’ve gotten him hanged or shot with little recourse. In Europe, he may have received stares or terse comments but little else.
It was back in the States where Johnson was initially recognized by the Harmon Foundation, receiving their Gold Medal by 1930. He returned to Europe around that time, settling in Denmark where he married Krake. They both created and exhibited work, and though they made few sales in that period, they were happy until World War II broke out.
This time, Johnson’s return to the U.S. in 1938 was forced and he took a job with the WPA or Works Progress Administration. A work from this period, Training for War, was far more simplistic than his earlier landscape or still lifes and, instead, focused on the tension of action in a compact space. Black soldiers are standing straight, rifles at the ready. The colors are blocked and deep. The piece could serve as propaganda, but the style is so expressive that it may not fit the classical or neoclassical designs in the military at that time—or any time for that matter.
Back to the future, or at least beyond the immediate effects of war, Johnson lost Holcha to cancer in 1943, a significant emotional blow. By 1946, still devastated by her death, Johnson found his way back to Norway on a half-baked scheme to marry her sister and continue creating, but his mind wouldn’t cooperate. Medical treatment for advanced syphilis at the time would’ve been scarce given it was prior to the proliferation of penicillin and the disease was still regarded as a social infection and byproduct of a misspent youth. Even though the wonder drug was more commonly prescribed by the post-war era, this was too late for many, including Johnson. Unable to recognize his situation or advocate for himself, Johnson was “put away.” The government used his money to pay for storage for the next ten or so years. It wasn’t until the Harmon Foundation became aware that his work was not only in the country, but in a single location, that they intervened. This was due, in no small part, to Mary B. Brady as well as Alain Locke who’d at one time acted as Johnson’s American representative. The work was about to be discarded and the Foundation got involved, convincing a local court to release the works into their custody. Upon examining the acquisition, they realized that Holcha’s ceramics and sculptures had been poorly packed and most of them were unsalvageable, but that Johnson’s work was relatively unharmed. The Foundation received the collection at no cost and, in turn, lent them to museums and galleries until they closed their doors in 1967.
The Harmon Foundation’s dissolution brought Johnson’s legacy back into question. They didn’t want to see the works scattered or auctioned apart so they gifted them to the National Collection of Fine Art—the precursor to the Smithsonian. This was a major obtainment as, up to that point, the Smithsonian had little more than 40 works by black artists in their entire collection. Not 40 artists, 40 total pieces. This led to his work being lent to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and the Foundation stipulated the pieces should be available relatively easily to Black institutions. One of the earliest posthumous shows was through the DuSable Museum who eventually secured four pieces as a part of their permanent collection. There was some back and forth during this time and a significant number of Johnson’s paintings ended up in private hands including Mary Brady’s as well as her sister. But little effort was made to notify, compensate, or include Johnson’s family in estate planning.
Eventually the family hired a lawyer and sued the Smithsonian who’d initially released two pieces to them while maintaining that a poor black family didn’t have the means to house or protect the work. The legal battle culminated after 20 years of stalling. Constance Baker Motley presided over the court case when it reached the federal level and she sought to get the Smithsonian and relevant galleries to settle with the family over a six-month period. The family was not interested in settling and the Smithsonian’s director at the time was not amenable to letting valuable artwork walk out the door, relatives or no relatives. Due to the work originally being released in state courts, Baker stated she had no choice but to dismiss the case and defer to the original ruling. Since the state courts had properly notified the family that the work was going to be discarded back in the 1950s when the storage fees were exhausted, that left the family with no recourse.
Johnson, whose heart never quite strayed from home or family despite his lengthy travels and career, may have been heartbroken to learn they’d never see any gains from his life’s work. It’s almost a blessing in disguise that he died relatively at peace and unawares.
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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.
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