Published: February 13, 2018
By Karla Klein Albertson
SAVANNAH, GA. – “Scenic Impressions: Southern Interpretations from the Johnson Collection” brings together around 50 works that explore the impact of the Impressionist movement on artists working in the South. The colorful paintings – mainly landscapes and genre scenes dating from 1880 to 1940 – are on display at the Telfair Academy through March 25. The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly volume of the same title containing essays, detailed catalog entries and biographies of the artists. After closing at the Telfair, the show will conclude its tour at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee, where it may be seen May 4-July 29.
The ever-growing Johnson Collection, based in Spartanburg, S.C., has created an innovative outreach program for sharing its treasures with the world. The pillars of the process are exhibition tours with multiple destinations, a permanent reference book of each exhibition published in connection with the University of South Carolina Press, a substantial database online, plus a reference library and downtown exhibition space in Spartanburg. Entrepreneur George Dean Johnson Jr and his wife, Susan “Susu” Phifer Johnson, are philanthropists involved in many projects. Both served in public office in the past. What began as an interest in Carolina artists in 2002 became a passionate collecting pursuit to chronicle the artistic history of the American South. The couple’s holdings now number more than a thousand examples and their interests continue to branch out into new areas connected to their fundamental goals.
In a 2014 article for The Magazine Antiques, Lauren Brunk, former Johnson Collection curator and vice president at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, N.C., discussed the couple’s expanding collection and explored the question of “How Southern is it?”
She noted, “Their first acquisitions were romantic paintings, evocative and local. They were drawn to the nostalgic nature of the imagery: the fields full of peach trees or the unpaved road leading into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The piedmont landscapes that dominated their early acquisitions soon gave way to Charleston Renaissance painters and then broadened to include a sampling of the best regional artists, both the well-known and the unsung.” She later wrote of the connection between the works, “The emphasis is on an artist’s personal or aesthetic connection, whether permanent or passing, with the place and the paradigm known as the South. Artists in the collection either hail from the South or spent a part of their active years working there.”
Looking at the current exhibition, an example of the former would be Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958), who was born in Charleston and seldom ventured outside of the Carolina Low Country. She did a series of drawings that recorded historic houses in the area, but she is best known for her almost mystical watercolors of regional landscapes that are as distinct in style as images by the revered pantheon of European Impressionists. A major influence was her study of Japanese woodblock prints.
She is represented in the exhibition by “Moon in the Mist,” pictured here, and a swamp scene with herons used as the frontispiece of the catalog. Growing interest among collectors was demonstrated when a very similar swamp scene was sold in Neal’s Louisiana Purchase Auction in New Orleans last November for $53,750. (Bonhams auctioned “Snowy Egrets in a Tree” for $67,100 in 2009, while “Egrets Perched in a Tree” made $64,100 at Skinner in 2000.)
Paul Sawyier (1865-1917), on the other hand, was born in Ohio, studied in Cincinnati, and then had the opportunity to take classes in New York City with William Merritt Chase. His father’s medical practice moved to Frankfort, Ky., his mother’s hometown. When Sawyier spent time there, he made a series of Impressionist paintings of scenes along the Kentucky River Valley. The tranquil watercolor and gouache “Kentucky Fishing Scene,” circa 1912, is an excellent example. He later returned to New York and brought his skills to bear on scenes in the city. A view of “Vale of Cashmere, Prospect Park, Brooklyn” sold for $28,980 in January 2016 at Case Auctions in Knoxville.
Anthony Johannes Thieme (1888-1954) was born in the Netherlands but settled on this side of the Atlantic in the art colony at Rockport, Mass. He is represented in the show by an evocative genre painting of a small store titled “Rain in the South,” one of the views he painted during winter visits to Charleston after World War II.
Bror Anders Wikstrom (1854-1909) was academically trained in his native Sweden but became enchanted by New Orleans. There he painted vignettes such as the “Spanish Colonial Garden.” He gained greatest acclaim as a designer of Mardi Gras floats and costumes for the Rex and Proteus krewes.
In a recent interview, Lynne Blackman of the Johnson Collection, editor of the current catalog, talked more about how the organization developed over time. Blackman noted, “The collection was begun in about 2002 by a couple of passionate collectors whose enthusiasm and commitment to philanthropy eventually outpaced the wall space. Mr Johnson is a big history buff. They were living away from Spartanburg for a while and loved those images of home, so they began to collect more seriously. At one point, it reached a critical mass. Their daughter Susanna, who was studying art history, said, ‘We need to share these.'”
Blackman continued, “What’s unique about our exhibitions is that the Johnsons are really committed to expanding our understanding and appreciation of Southern art. It’s not a subcategory, but just another aspect of great American art. Knowing that not everyone can come to Spartanburg, they have chosen to send these exhibitions out all over the Southeast. By doing that, we can reach a lot more people. We are interested in being a presence in Southern art, more so than being a place. We’re happy to share our art and our research in this way.”
The Johnsons’ first project was the exhibition and accompanying volume Romantic Spirits: Nineteenth Century Paintings of the South from the Johnson Collection, which came out in 2012. The show featuring history paintings, portraits and landscapes from the Nineteenth Century went to eight locations across the Southeast, beginning in 2013 and ending in November 2016. After a monograph on Eugene Thomason, a North Carolina artist, Scenic Impressions was the third book published by the Johnson team.
Blackman said, “Our next book – Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection – will be released in June of this year. It will be our largest book to date. Its exhibition will open in late June at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens and will travel to seven museums through 2021. We have six lead scholarly essays in the volume, one of which delves into race and gender and compares the work of self-taught artists with more formally trained ones. After completing our book on women artists, we’re turning to the African American artists in our collection, and we have a pretty stellar group. Two members of the Johnson family recently went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for the opening of the Outliers’ exhibition. We’ve lent our Malvin Gray Johnson [1896-1934] painting to that show.”
The greatest beneficiaries of the Johnson Collection exhibitions and tours are the participating institutions and their visitors. Courtney McNeil, chief curator of collections and exhibitions at the Telfair Museums, explained, “The exhibition ties in really nicely with our collection. It takes a look at Impressionism – this French movement that had great impact on the United States – and it parses the influence it had on artists working in the South, which is so interesting to our audience. I think visitors’ first reaction is an appreciation of the breathtaking beauty of the work. It’s easy work to enjoy, because the paintings are colorful, they’re beautifully painted. They’re very affective works. I hope people gain a better understanding of how this avant-garde art movement of Impressionism began in Paris, spread to New York and then had this indelible effect on the regional schools of art, as well.”
McNeil noted, “My personal favorite in the exhibition is Hattie Saussy [1890-1978], whose painting ‘Path with Mossy Trees’ is on the cover of the catalog. She’s a Savannah-born artist who studied in New York and Europe but came back to Savannah and lived the majority of her life here. Local girl makes good in the art world. She played such an important role, not just as an artist in Savannah but in her advocacy for artists through the formation of the Savannah Art Association and organizing exhibition opportunities throughout Georgia.
“I contributed entries to the upcoming exhibition catalog, Central to Their Lives, on Saussy and Augusta Oelschig [1918-2000]. As they gathered art over the last 15 years, the Johnsons have undertaken a real mission to acquire works by lesser known artists and elevate their reputations. The exhibition is an excellent complement to our existing holdings. This allows us to present a new story to our audience.”
Summing up their inspiration in a website essay, “A Private Collection for Public Good,” Susu Johnson is quoted as saying, “Who can say what ignites a passion? Was it those three red roses frozen in blue? An awakened connection to one’s geographical roots? Perhaps the familiarity of the road to Nebo? The nucleus of what was to become our collection was formed by such seemingly unrelated catalysts. Looking back, it was always the sense of place that drew George and me to beautiful pictures – pictures that capture not only the glorious landscape of the South, but that also enliven its unique culture and dynamic history.”
The museum at Telfair Academy is at 121 Barnard Street. For information, www.telfair.org or 912-790-8800.
Journalist Karla Klein Albertson writes about decorative arts and design.
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