Former curator at the Hampton University Museum, Jeffrey Bruce organized this exhibition several years ago. Bruce selected these pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance who approached their canvas with tremendous knowledge and sophistication. Though humble in appearance, the paintings, drawings and prints they produced are intensely modern. “They look simple, but they’re not,” as Bruce described the intelligence and finesse to be found in a series of early paintings by William H. Johnson. “They’re like Cezanne, where you see an apple on a table — but it’s much more than an apple on a table.”
Spirit of the Renaissance: The Art of William H. Johnson and Malvin Gray Johnson includes dozens of colorful, often evocative images — from the museum’s nationally known African American art collection.
Though no relation, both men were Southerners who moved to New York City in the early 1900s, studied at the National Academy of Design and spent time in Europe. Both artists received support from the Harmon Foundation, established in 1922, and known as a primary patron for African American artists. Fifteen of Malvin Gray Johnson’s works were donated to Hampton by the Foundation. When the Harmon Foundation dispersed its collection in 1967 the major portion of William H. Johnson’s work went to the National Museum of American Art. A select group of HBCUs received some of Johnson’s work, including Hampton University which acquired 66 works by the artist.
They are the extreme modernists of this generation. Diverse as their temperaments are, there are certain common features, first of all, the strong influence of modernism or abstract art, that is, art with the shorthand emphasis on generalized forms rather than pictorial realism or photographic detail. This art mode, which had dominated younger American artists for over a decade, began through European art being influenced by African art. In the second place has come the more direct influence from the ever-increasing popularity of the Negro theme and subject in contemporary art, toward a school of art trying not only to interpret Negro Form, but the Negro spirit.
Alain Locke, noted philosopher, educator and critic comments on, among others, the Art of Malvin Gray Johnson and William H. Johnson in his 1936 work Negro Art: Past and Present