They sit apart in the photo and together, two artists, she at her loom, he lighting his pipe. She is Danish, he is African-American. He is 34 or 35. She is sixteen years older. They live in Denmark and have been married five years.
Sheri and I saw their photo last week at an out-of-the-way museum that is also an historic estate overlooking the Rappahannock River near Fredricksburg, Virginia. The day we arrived, a traveling exhibit presented the art of William Henry Johnson, an influential Modernist who did most of his best work from about 1926 until the mid-1940s. He is the man Sheri and I saw in the photograph, lighting his pipe.
|Lofoten Island, 1937|
And what an artist! His canvases show range, dynamism, and a willingness to explore. European expressionism in his work gave way to something like cubism, gave way to what he called “primitive” two-dimensional art. Talented and experimental, he decided at a young age that, “I am not afraid to exaggerate a contour, a form, or anything that gives more character and movement to the canvas.”
Born poor in South Carolina, Johnson later studied art in New York City. A mentor helped him raise money to visit Paris in 1926, and it was in France that he met a Danish weaver/artist named Holcha Krake. Sixteen years apart in age, the couple married in 1930, traveled throughout Europe and North Africa to study art, and settled mostly in Denmark to paint and to weave.
In 1938, fearing how invading Nazis would react to a black man married to a white woman, they moved to New York City. They continued to work, even exhibiting together, and Johnson began his shift toward colorful two-dimensional primitivism.
Six years later, Holcha died of breast cancer. By all reports, Johnson’s grief tipped him away from what might have already been a fragile sanity. He painted a year or so more, then was institutionalized at a state mental hospital in New York, where he lived the rest of his life, never painting again. He died in 1970.
“Don’t let that happen to you,” Sheri said.
We were the only people in the gallery, alone with William and Holcha and William’s art. We left their love story and went to look again at his painting of a couple dancing the Jitterbug.