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Entries in AmerAmerican Modernism (2)


William H. Johnson: A Major American Artist  

William H. Johnson - Soldiers’ Morning Bath - ca. 1941-1942 - tempera and pen and ink with pencil on paper - 16 x 20 1/4 in. - Smithsonian American Art Museum - Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)By almost any standard, William H. Johnson (1901–1970) can be considered a major American artist. Yet he died in poverty and obscurity. Johnson produced hundreds of works in a virtuosic, eclectic career that spanned several decades as well as several continents. It was not until very recently, however, that his work began to receive the attention it deserves.

Born in South Carolina to a poor African-American family, Johnson moved to New York at age seventeen. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for an art education at the prestigious National Academy of Design. His mastery of the academy's rigorous standards gained him both numerous awards and the respect of his teachers and fellow students.

Johnson spent the late 1920s in France, absorbing the lessons of modernism. As a result, his work became more expressive and emotional. During this same period, he met and fell in love with Danish artist Holcha Krake, whom he married in 1930. The couple spent most of the '30s in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in primitivism and folk art began to have a noticeable impact on his work.

Returning with Holcha to the U.S. in 1938, Johnson immersed himself in the traditions of Afro-America, producing work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity. A Greenwich Village resident, he became a familiar, if somewhat aloof, figure on the New York art scene. He was also a well-established part of the African-American artistic community at a time when most black artists were still riding the crest of the Harlem Renaissance.

Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. Following his wife's death in 1944, Johnson's physical and mental health declined dramatically. In a tragic and drawn-out conclusion to a life of immense creativity, Johnson spent his last twenty-three years in a state hospital on Long Island. By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life's work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Magic Realism: Philip Evergood

Philip Evergood - Don’t Cry Mother - 1938-44 - Oil on canvas - 26 x 18 in. - Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York (click photo for larger image) Magic Realism is an American style of art with Surrealist undercurrents. The art is anchored in everyday reality, but has overtones of fantasy or wonder. The term was later also applied to the literary works of authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.

One of the style’s practitioners was American painter, etcher, lithographer, sculptor, illustrator and writer, Philip Evergood (1901-1973). Born Philip Blashki, he became (with the name Philip Evergood) one of the leading modernists of the 20th Century, with styles combining abstraction and realism, and with subjects (during the 1930s) that made him one of the leading social realists of his time.

Although born in New York City, Evergood was raised in London, where he moved in 1909 with his parents until 1923. He studied at Eton and Cambridge University and then at the Slade School. Returning to New York, he was a student of Ashcan School painter George Luks (1866-1933) at the Art Students League.

From 1924 to 1926, he traveled in Europe and studied in Paris at the Academie Julian. He lived abroad again from 1929 to 1931. During the 1920s and 1930s, Evergood explored themes with a distorted style reflective of both Cezanne and El Greco. His figures seemed to exist in fanciful worlds or “imagined space”. (Baigell) By 1935, he had completed politically and socially charged American Scene paintings, focused on the unhappiness of people caught in the Depression.

During the 1930s, Evergood was a muralist for the WPA. in the Federal Art Project, and his mural works include The Story of Richmond Hill for the library in that part of New York City, and Cotton from Field to Mill for the Post Office in Jackson, Georgia. Remaining politically active, Evergood served as President of the New York Artists Union.

Evergood taught both art and music at various institutions in the 1940s. During this time, he distanced himself from political and social issues to create figures that were more fanciful and free.

In 1952, he moved to Connecticut until his death. Sadly, Evergood was killed in a house fire in Bridgewater, Connecticut, in 1973, at the age of 72.