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26 June, 2013
An American van Gogh?
He could almost be considered an American van Gogh. The similarities are uncanny. William Henry Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, around 1906, the son of a black labourer who shovelled coal for the railroads. At the age of 17, he went to New York to study art at the National Academy of design, and then in 1926, moved on to France where he met his Danish wife, a weaver by the name of Holcha Krake. With the approach of WW II, he returned to this country where he had some modest success with a few New York gallery shows, and even had a painting, Chain Gang, displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Such meagre success was not enough to live on though. He worked as a teacher for the WPA in Harlem and at the Brooklyn Naval Yards. In 1944, his wife died of breast cancer. After the war, he packed up all their belongings and bought a ticket for Denmark, apparently hoping to marry Holcha's sister. She had other ideas.

William Johnson's early works were expressionist landscapes. In France, his paintings were more impressionistic very much like those of van Gogh. Eventually, he settled on the flat, two-dimensional style that makes up most of his work. His subject matter included urban couples dancing, making 1940s style fashion statements, black soldiers from WW II, southern tenant farmers with their horses and mules, working the land, their faces often expressionless, their hands and feet seemingly enlarged by years of tortured labour in the fields. It was not the kind of thing selling in the post-war New York art market. He was eventually reduced to painting on burlap and discarded plywood. His style appeared crude and unschooled. It was neither, but the colour of his skin served to reinforce such judgements. Galleries and museums weren't much interested.

In Denmark, finding his wife's sister not much interested either, he moved on to Oslo, Norway, where police found him wondering the streets, homeless, but with over $6,000 in his pocket. He was deported back to the United States, committed to a mental institution, diagnosed with paresis (a brain disease caused by syphilis), and declared mentally incompetent. He never painted again. He died 22 years later, his work forgotten, stored and damaged in a leaky warehouse. Eventually, during the 1950s, through a long chain of judicial events, his paintings were declared worthless. They eventually ended up with a now-defunct Harlem social agency that, in closing its doors, passed them on to the Smithsonian Institution. Now, almost thirty years after his death, thanks to the institution, his work has been restored, and made the subject of numerous shows, while reproductions of his brightly coloured paintings adorn calendars and postcards. His descendants however, claim the works have been stolen from them, and have filed a $100 million lawsuit to reclaim them. Meanwhile, Willie Johnson lies buried beneath a small stone bearing the number 5405, amongst the waist-high weeds of an abandoned cemetery behind the abandoned Central Islip Psychiatric Center on Long Island.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
25 March 1999

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