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Georgia Museum of Art

Sowing, William H. Johnson, ca. 1940, gouache and pencil,  collection of Morgan State University

Sowing, William H. Johnson, ca. 1940, gouache and pencil,
collection of Morgan State University

We concluded last week’s visit to Athens, Georgia, with a stop at the Georgia Museum of Art. It is “both a university museum under the aegis of the University of Georgia and, since 1982, the official state museum of art. Located on the East Campus of UGA, in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex, it opened in 1948. Recently, it completed an extensive expansion and remodeling of its building, paid for entirely with externally raised funds, that has allowed it to display its permanent collection continually.”

I had looked at the museum’s website before we left Seattle and identified an exhibition that I thought we would enjoy, William H. Johnson: An American Modern. We made it our first stop. Below is the painting that greets you on entering the exhibition space.

Aunt Alice, ca. 1944, oil on compressed board, collection of Morgan State University

Aunt Alice, ca. 1944, oil on compressed board, collection of Morgan State University

According to the website,

William Henry Johnson (1901–1970) is a pivotal figure in modern American art. A virtuoso skilled in various media and techniques, he produced thousands of works over a career that spanned decades, continents and genres. Now, on view in its entirety for the first time, a seminal collection covering key stages in Johnson’s career will be presented in “William H. Johnson: An American Modern.” Developed by Baltimore’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University, this Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition represents a unique opportunity to share the artist’s oeuvre with a broader audience. This exhibition of 20 expressionist and vernacular landscapes, still-life paintings and portraits investigates the intricate layers of Johnson’s diverse cultural perspective as an artist and self-described “primitive and cultured painter.” An exhibition catalogue, funded in part by the Henry Luce Foundation, features essays by such noted scholars as David C. Driskell, on such topics as primitivism, modernism and African American art; African American artists and the art historical canon; identity and aesthetics in art; and art and art scholarship at historically black colleges and universities.

Photos were not allowed for temporary exhibitions, so I can’t show you any more than the two above from the website, which is unfortunate, because there were many wonderful works. For instance, his Byzantine-influenced paintings of Christ and followers, with African-Americans filling all the roles.

I see now that the exhibition was at the Cleveland Museum of Art before coming to Athens. In a review of the exhibition at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Steven Litt writes:

His bright, flat, cartoonlike paintings of jitterbugging dancers and Southern sharecroppers look like the work of a naive outsider on the surface, but they are every bit as knowing and accomplished as the work of such contemporaries as Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden. Johnson sought a raw authenticity while also clearly drawing on years of hard-won artistic knowledge.

[snip]

The exhibition illuminates all major phases of Johnson’s career and arouses a powerful curiosity about how he navigated successfully from the Deep South to the upper East Side of Manhattan and then rural Denmark.

Johnson’s harbor scenes of fishing boats in Kerteminde and of the jagged fjord of Lofoten Island in Norway, which he and Krake visited, feel emotionally raw and exposed. Hypersensitive to mood, light and color, they convey enormous gusto through heavy applications of thick paint.

The later works after Johnson returned with Krake to New York have the concentrated energy and simplicity of an artist at the top of his game.

After Krake’s death from cancer in 1944, Johnson turned to religious themes in paintings constructed mainly out of flat areas of color and pattern. As the show’s catalog points out, Johnson was inspired both by medieval and Renaissance European paintings, as well as African textiles and patchwork quilts from the American South.

Sadly, Johnson grew increasingly disabled after he was diagnosed in 1947 with paresis, a form of dementia caused by syphilis. During a prolonged visit in Denmark in 1946-47, he was picked up for vagrancy and hospitalized in Oslo, Norway.

We next headed to the museum’s permanent collection, which has surprising range. I passed quickly over the Renaissance paintings, this not seeming to be one of the museum’s strengths. Looking now at the photos I took, I can see that I focused mostly on mid-twentieth century. Here are examples:

George Schreiber, The White House, 1945:

schreiber

Louis Freund, Transcontinental Bus, 1936:

freund

Robert Gwathmey, Hoeing Tobacco, 1946

gwathmey

I included two other paintings in a post last Saturday previewing coming attractions. Recall Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s self-portrait from the late 1980s:

Jimmy Lee Sudduth, self-portrait, homemade pigments and house paint on tin, Georgia Museum of Art

Jimmy Lee Sudduth, self-portrait, homemade pigments and house paint on tin, Georgia Museum of Art

And R.A. Miller’s All the Devils (no date):

All the Devils, RA Miller, enamel paint on barn door, Georgia Museum of Art

All the Devils, RA Miller, enamel paint on barn door, Georgia Museum of Art

Here’s a detail:

devildetail

Excellent museum. We’re glad we reserved time to visit.

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Categories: Art, Museums, Travel
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