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William H. Johnson’s “Training for War”: Time for Action

Our guest blogger today is Diane Turquety, the Terra Foundation Intern for American Art and student of the Ecole du Louvre, Paris.

William H. Johnson, “Training for War,” 1942. National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Indianapolis Chapter, Estate of Hermine Floch by exchange and James E. Roberts Fund. 2004.48

Born in the U.S. and trained in both Europe and America, African American artist William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) undertook a decisive shift in his artistic approach in the early 1940s. After training at the National Academy of Design and studying abroad for almost twelve years, Johnson set up a studio in Harlem and gave up his expressionist style of working, mostly inspired by Chaim Soutine, to adopt a simplified, folk-like style.

Training for War, which can be found in the IMA’s collection, is representative of what is arguably Johnson’s most original work. Flattened figures, a limited palette, and approximate perspective: the picture recalls cartoonish, pseudo-naïve imagery. But the work is more elaborate than it may first appear. The composition is strict: the shapes are inside a grid structure where repeated vertical lines dominate, conveying precision and rhythm. A recruit calls another recruit, a flag another flag, a gun another gun. You can observe the same process in the call and response of the colors. The paint, very thick, appears to be serigraph overlaid with stenciled elements (look at the bench and its surprising schematic shadow). Despite the instability of the paper, the colors remain vibrant.

Did you say primitive?

Upon seeing these new paintings, American critics were, at first, perplexed and even bitter. James A. Porter, the author of Modern Negro Art (which was published in 1943 and one of the first books to seriously examine African American art), commented that Johnson’s “new style” suffered from a fascination with “pre-historic and primitive art.” Writer Alain Locke could only write that Johnson had moved “somewhat extremely to the artistic left of disorganized expressionism.”

Yet, Johnson’s earlier expressionist landscapes and portraits were described as giving “a primitive impression.” Although this argument was generally meant to be flattering, it revealed unconscious stereotypes on psychological interpretations of black culture. At this time, African-American artists had difficulty avoiding stereotypes of primitivism or accusations of reliance on European art. In 1946, when asked by Nora Holt why he had changed from more “traditional forms” of painting to his “recent primitives,” Johnson answered: “It was not a change but a development.” This development could be seen in his constant attention to rhythm, color and directness. While some critics called him a primitive painter –a misnomer considering Johnson’s training and experience – New York’s major art critics recognized that his simple flat shapes represented a sophisticated contemporary style.

A Shift in Subject Matter

Perhaps the most crucial change in Johnson’s art was its subject matter. The focus on the African American figure and everyday “folk” life would have accelerated the shift in his style of painting. In 1940, he outlined his career objective as follows: “I want to paint Negro people in their natural environment.” What were his motivations? To steer clear of painting’s ‘easy route’ and avoid traditions of Western Europe? To take part in the progress towards African American self-imaging? Training for War responds to these suggestions.

In the weeks that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnson participated in the national traveling exhibition American Artists’ Record for War and Defense, which opened on February 7, 1942 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. For this event, he made a series of screen-print images reflecting the contributions of African American soldiers. Instead of dramatic and heroic charges, Johnson focused on peaceful activities. His sense of caricature, which records the essentials of a subject and the composition, underscores a political message: the loyalty of this all-black unit engaged in the war effort and the debates that surrounded the U.S. Army’s segregation policies during the WWII-era. As a contemporary critic commented, “understatement, humor and deep human understanding” seem to have been the keys of Johnson’s subtle protest.

Johnson often created the same image in different media, making each print slightly different from the other. Three Training for War serigraphs and tempera pieces are owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, none of which are currently on view. Even today, Johnson’s work suffers from lack of visibility: his prints are fragile and the majority of his life’s work has been concentrated in one place (the National Museum of American Art). In the Smithsonian traveling exhibition currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art –William H. Johnson, An American Modern- only five prints from a total of twenty works are exhibited.

Perhaps it’s time for the IMA’s Training for War to get ready for action and go on view again!  Starting tomorrow, you can come see the work installed within the American Scene Gallery.

Filed under: Art, The Collection

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