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William H. Johnson was an artist who made use of as primitive style of painting to depict the experience of African-Americans during the 1930s and '40s.
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Artist William H. Johnson was born in 1901 in Florence, South Carolina. After deciding to pursue his dreams as an artist, he attended the National Academy of Design in New York and met his mentor, Charles Webster Hawthorne. After graduating, Johnson moved to Paris, traveled throughout Europe and was exposed to new kinds of artistic creations and artists. Upon his return to the United States, Johnson used a primitive style of painting in conjunction with what was considered a "folk" style,
"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."
"I have a big space to select from that gives me all the freedom that I need. Here the sun is everything."
"I myself feel like a primitive man, like one who is at the same time both a primitive and a cultured painter."
"I am not afraid to exaggerate a contour, a form, or anything that gives more character and movement to the canvas."
using of bright colors and two-dimensional figures. He spent his final 23 years of life in a mental hospital in Central Islip, New York, where he died in 1970.
Artist William Henry Johnson was born on March 18, 1901, in the small town of Florence, South Carolina, to parents Henry Johnson and Alice Smoot, who were both laborers. Johnson realized his dreams of becoming an artist at a young age, copying cartoons from the paper as a child. However, as the oldest of the family's five children, who lived in a poor, segregated town in the South, Johnson tucked away his aspirations of becoming an artist, deeming them unrealistic.
But Johnson finally left South Carolina in 1918, at the age of 17, to pursue his dreams in New York City. There, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design and met Charles Webster Hawthorne, a well-known artist who took Johnson under his wing. While Hawthorne recognized Johnson's talent, he knew that Johnson would have a difficult time excelling as an African-American artist in the United States, and thus raised enough money to send the young artist to Paris, France, upon his graduation in 1926.
After arriving in Paris, William H. Johnson was exposed to a greater variety of art and culture. Renting a studio on the French Riviera, Johnson met other artists who influenced his style of artwork, including German expressionist sculptor Christoph Voll. Through Voll, Johnson met textile artist Holcha Krake, whom he would eventually marry.
After several years in Paris, in 1930, Johnson ventured back to the United States with a newfound desire to establish himself in the art scene of his home country. While his unique form of artwork was appreciated when he returned to the United States, he was shocked by prejudice that he encountered in his hometown. There, he was arrested for painting on a local building that had become a brothel. Not long after the incident, a frustrated Johnson left South Carolina for Europe once again.
In late 1930, Johnson moved to Denmark and married Krake. When the two weren't traveling to foreign areas such as North Africa, Scandinavia, Tunisia and other parts of Europe for artistic inspiration, they stayed in their quiet neighborhood of Kerteminde, Denmark. The peace didn't last long, however; the increasing threat of World War II and growing Nazism led the interracial couple to move to New York in 1938.
Though they had moved to avoid any conflict with the Nazis, William and Holcha still faced racism and discrimination as an interracial couple living in the United States.
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