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April 19th, 2007
Survey of Prints, Drawings and Watercolors by William H. Johnson Comes to Philadelphia in May 2007

The career of William H. Johnson (1901–1970) was one of the most brilliant yet tragic of any early 20th-century American artist. Best known for his lively paintings of the African American experience in the rural South and urban North, Johnson was also an accomplished printmaker and watercolorist whose style shifted from dramatic expressionism to what he termed a more “primitive” approach using bright and contrasting colors and flattened, two-dimensional forms. William H. Johnson’s World on Paper examines, for the first time, his achievements as a graphic artist. Delicate watercolor drawings, bold block prints, and colorful screenprints reveal him as an inventive modernist.

The exhibition, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from May 19 through August 12, 2007, is drawn largely from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the largest and most extensive holding of Johnson’s work in all mediums.

“William H. Johnson’s legacy of paintings, prints and drawings reveals a sophisticated, avant-garde artist whose work combined the subtleties of his hero, Henry Ossawa Tanner, with European-inspired modernism, and African American folk art,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “We are delighted that the exhibition affords the chance to display the rare and spectacular group of prints by William H. Johnson that recently entered the Museum’s permanent collection in context with the wonderful prints, drawings and watercolors from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”

Born in 1901 in Florence, S.C., to a poor family, Johnson moved to New York at age 17, just in time for the first flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for an art education at the prestigious National Academy of Design. Johnson worked with painter Charles Hawthorne, who raised funds to send Johnson abroad to study. He spent the late 1920s in France, absorbing the lessons of modernism. During this period, he married Danish artist Holcha Krake. The couple spent most of the 1930s in Scandinavia, where Johnson’s interest in folk art had a profound impact on his work. Returning with Holcha to the United States in 1938, Johnson immersed himself in African American culture and traditions. Although Johnson attained some 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 deteriorated; he spent the final 23 years of his life in obscurity, confined to a state hospital in Long Island, N.Y.

Seventy-nine works will be featured in the show, including block prints, screenprints, oil and tempera paintings, along with selected drawings and watercolors, providing an overview of Johnson’s career, both in Europe in the 1930s and in New York in the 1940s. Among the varied subjects of his work are early landscapes of Denmark, Norway and North Africa; portraits of his neighbors in Denmark; scenes of daily life in Harlem and the rural South; and scenes of black enlisted men and female volunteers of World War II. The exhibition reveals Johnson’s stylistic development from his academic beginnings to a more expressionistic mode and finally to his distinctive form of figurative abstraction based on folk art and African colors and patterns.

While in Europe, Johnson came in contact with the art of Edvard Munch, whose rough-gouged experimental block prints seem to have inspired Johnson to try new printmaking techniques. The unevenly inked black areas in some of the artist’s block prints, such as Jon Fisherman (2), suggest that Johnson did not use a printing press but instead applied pressure to the back of the paper with the bowl of a spoon or the heel of his hand to transfer the wet ink from the block to the paper.

Back in the United States in the late 1930s Johnson continued to make block prints while at the same time he was attracted to the screenprint technique. A stencil method developed in the 1920s for printing signboards and posters, in the 1930s the screenprint was adopted by artists to make limited edition prints. It was as a screenprint artist that Johnson would leave his most lasting mark as a printmaker. The bright-hued, opaque inks and the hand cut stencils used for making screenprints proved to be ideal for translating the sharp edges and flat expanses of his new painting style, which appears to have been inspired in equal parts by the colorful cartoons of his childhood, the folk art of Scandinavia and North Africa, and the African American folk traditions of his own country.

William H. Johnson's World on Paper is organized and circulated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition’s tour is supported in part by the C.F. Foundation, Atlanta, and the William R. Kenan, Jr., Endowment Fund.


An exhibition of more than 40 prints was on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (July 1, 2006 through Jan. 7, 2007). An expanded version of the exhibition that includes selected drawings and watercolors will tour to the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas (Feb. 3 – April 8, 2007), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (May 19 – August 12, 2007) and the Montgomery Museum of Art, in Montgomery, Ala. (Sept. 15 –Nov. 18, 2007). In Philadelphia the exhibition is further enriched by the inclusion of several of Johnson’s oil paintings and prints from private collections.

Housing more than 150,000 works of art, the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is nationally recognized for the breadth and depth of its collections as well as the flair and scholarship of its exhibitions. The Department presents rotating installations of its vast holdings in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries and the Julien Levy Gallery on the Museum’s ground floor and the Eglin Gallery on the first floor. Individual works are also on view in the Museum’s permanent collection galleries. In September 2007, the department moves its collections to a state-of-the-art study, storage, and conservation center in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building.

Public Programs

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum will be offering the following courses and public programs:

William H. Johnson: Drawing Together
Sunday, May 20, 2007
12:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Free after Museum admission (which is ‘pay what you wish’ on Sundays)

Inspired by works in the special exhibition William H. Johnson's World on Paper, families are invited to create their own drawings in the galleries with the help of mentor artists.

William H. Johnson’s Worlds of Color
Sunday, June 3, 2007
Starts at 2:30 p.m.
Van Pelt Auditorium, first floor
Free tickets required after Museum admission

Author and art historian Dr. Helen Shannon, Associate Professor of Museum Studies, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, discusses the life and work of William H. Johnson, as part of the special exhibition William H. Johnson's World on Paper.

Sunday Family Studio

Every Sunday this summer (June 3 thorugh August 26) the Museum presents its popular Family Studio program, inviting children of all ages to create artwork inspired by the Museum’s collections, including a collage project based on the prints and drawings in William H. Johnson’s World on Paper.

Family Storytelling Festival
Sunay August 12, 2007
Free after Museum admission

Explore amazing stories through pictures with the special exhibitions William H. Johnson’s World on Paper and Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney. Be captivated by Bill Wood's tall tales and American Indian legends and Denise Valentine's African American stories. Meet author/illustrator Deborah Kogan Ray as she reads from her newest children's book and explains how she creates stories. Be inspired to create are in our Make and Take Workshop and Drawing Together.

Make and Take Workshop
10:00 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Author/Illustrator Demonstrations
11:00 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Performance by Bill Wood
Starts at 11:15 a.m.

Drawing Together
12:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Performance by Denise Valentine
Starts at 12:15 p.m.

Reading by author/illustrator Deborah Kogan Ray
12:45 p.m. to 1:15 p.m.

Performance by Bill Wood
Starts at 1:15 p.m.

Performance by Denise Valentine
Starts at 2:15 p.m.

Social Media
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