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Acquiring a Work of Art: Training for War

There was a beautiful full page ad that a New York dealer had placed in the magazine American Art Review of a print by William H. Johnson.  Johnson first received attention in 1929 when he won the Harmon Foundation Gold medal.  He was a well trained artist having studied at the art school of the National Academy of Design and then in France, where he took up residence in the former studio of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  After his return from France, Johnson resided in Harlem and became part of the Harlem Renaissance culture.

Much of Johnson’s art focused on his roots in South Carolina and his life in Harlem.  His work is very colorful and expressive and often tinged with humor.  After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America went to war, Johnson produced numerous paintings and prints that explored the contributions of African Americans to the war effort.  His paintings depicted black soldiers engaged in infantry training, ammunition drills, actual battle, and war-related support services.  He focused on their heroism as well as the segregation of the armed forces with a combination of seriousness and his signature style of humor.

Training for War by William H. Johnson

Training for War by William H. Johnson

Since the work under consideration was a serigraph, which meant that more than one image of Training for War existed, I wanted to find out more about his work in this medium.  I called the Library of Congress whose prints and photographs division contains a large collection of serigraphs by William H. Johnson.  I learned that the work is a combination of techniques – serigraph (screen print), pochoir (stencil print) and some hand painting.  Several cardboard cutouts were found in Johnson’s studio similar to images in his prints.  He made the prints using his own type of screening and hand painting technique which meant that they were not exactly alike.  The IMA was fortunate because the paper used in the print under consideration was art paper, a better quality of paper than Johnson often used for his prints.

Training for War would also be perfect for the July 2005 opening of the new American galleries; patriotic and timely, it would complement the museum’s Frederic Edwin Church Civil War flag painting and Arthur Clifton Goodwin’s Liberty Loan Parade.  This print would be the last of the five works sponsored in part by the Coalition of 100 Black Women, Indianapolis Chapter.  Two of these works are not being discussed in this series because they are in the Contemporary collection, but for your information these pieces are the sculpture Nappy Head Blues by Alison Saar and the painting In the Studio by William Majors.

Johnson’s prints are difficult to acquire because they have the same condition concerns as works by Jacob Lawrence, fading colors, warped paper, stains, etc.  They also have the same light and hanging restrictions as Lawrence’s painting.  In 1967 the Harmon Foundation gave 1200 works of art by Johnson to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and a large collection of his prints to the Library of Congress making it very difficult to find this artist’s work on the open market.  The print under consideration was from the collection of Thurlow Tibbs, an important African American collector, who left most of his collection to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C.  Having a work by Johnson in the IMA collection is a major coup, so don’t miss it in the American galleries where it will be on view until July when it comes down to rest until next year.

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