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Jacob Lawrence

See also: The Jacob Lawrence Project; American Art


"Born in Atlantic City, [Jacob Lawrence] spent part of his childhood in Pennsylvania and then, after his parents split up in 1924, he went with his mother and siblings to New York, settling in Harlem. When years later he told an interviewer that "I am the black community," he was neither boasting nor kidding. He had none of the alienation from Harlem that was felt by some other black artists of the 1930s, like the expatriate William Johnson.

"He trained as a painter at the Harlem Art Workshop, inside the New York Public Library's 113 5th Street branch. Younger than the artists and writers who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Lawrence was also at an angle to them: he was not interested in the kind of idealized, fake-primitive images of blacks - the Noble Negroes in Art Deco guise - that tended to be produced as an antidote to the toxic racist stereotypes with which white popular culture had flooded America since Reconstruction. Nevertheless, he gained self-confidence from the Harlem cultural milieu - in particular, from the art critic Alain Locke, a Harvard-trained esthete (and America's first black Rhodes scholar) who believed strongly in the possibility of an art created by blacks which could speak explicitly to African-Americans and still embody the values, and self-critical powers, of modernism. Or, in Locke's own words, "There is in truly great art no essential conflict between racial or national traits and universal human values." This would not sit well with today's American cultural separatists who trumpet about the incompatibility of American experiences - "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand" - but it was vital to Lawrence's own growth as an artist. Locke perceived the importance of the Great Migration, not just as an economic event but as a cultural one, in which countless blacks took over the control of their own lives, which had been denied them in the South:

With each successive wave of it, the movement of the Negro migrant becomes more and more like that of the European waves at their crests, a mass movement towards the larger and more democratic chance-in the Negro's case a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from mediaeval America to modern.
"To narrate it, then, would require a modern language, a deep immersion in the experience, and an awareness of the harsh toll that contact with American modernity exacted on the blacks. From childhood, Lawrence had been steeped in family and community stories of the Migration, and when - encouraged by Locke - he decided to paint it, he worked hard to get the historical background right. Months of painstaking research in the Schomburg Collection of the Public Library, New York's chief archive on African-American life and history, followed - even though the finished paintings rarely allude to specific historical events. He took on the task with a youthful earnestness that remains one of the most touching aspects of the final work, and goes beyond mere self-expression. As a result, you sense that something is speaking through Lawrence - a collectivity.

"The series is notable for the language it does not use. Lawrence was not a propagandist. He eschewed the caricatural apparatus of Popular Front Social Realism, then at its high tide in America. Considering the violence and pathos of so much of his subject matter - prisons, deserted villages, city slums, race riots, labor camps - his images are restrained, and all the more piercing for their lack of bombast. When he painted a lynching, for instance, he left out the dangling body and the jeering crowd: there is only bare earth, a branch, an empty noose, and the huddled lump of a grieving woman. He set aside the influence of Rivera and the Mexican muralists, which lay so heavily on other artists; he wasn't painting murals, but images closer in size to single pages, no more than eighteen inches by twelve. Nevertheless, he imagined the paintings as integrally connected - a single work of art, no less unified than a mural, but portable. Migration is a visual ballad, each image a stanza-compressed, like the blues, to the minimum needs of narration. Number 10, "They were very poor", pares the elements of a black sharecropper's life down to the least common denominator: a man and a woman staring at empty bowls on a bare brown plane, an empty basket hung on the wall by an enormous nail - the sort of nail you imagine in a crucifixion. There isn't a trace of the sentimentality that coats Picasso's Blue Period, or the work of most American Social Realists.

"Lawrence called his style "dynamic cubism," though it wasn't notably dynamic, except when he used flamelike forms and pushy oppositions of structure; generally the paintings tend to an Egyptian stillness, friezelike even when you know the subject was moving. His debts to Cubism and to Matisse are obvious: the flat, sharp overlaps of form, the reliance on silhouette, and a high degree of abstraction in the color. But there is something more demotic behind those colors. They came, as Lawrence acknowledged, more from his experience in Harlem than from other art:

In order to add something to their lives, [black families] decorated their tenements and their homes in all of these colors. I've been asked, is anyone in my family artistically inclined? I've always felt ashamed of my response and I always said no, not realizing that my artistic sensibility came from this ambiance.... It's only in retrospect that I realized I was surrounded by art. You'd walk Seventh Avenue and took in the windows and you'd see all these colors in the depths of the depression. All these colors.
"The memory of them is plain in Number 57, "The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South", with its single figure of a laundress in a white smock, stirring a vat of fabrics - blue, black, yellow, pink - with her pole: a dense and well-locked composition, suggesting the permanence and resistance which is one of the underlying themes of Lawrence's series."

- From "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America", by Robert Hughes

Further reading on Jacob Lawrence

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Jacob Lawrence Images

1940-41 The Migration Series, Panel No. 10:
"They were very poor"
1940-41 The Migration Series, Panel No. 34:
"The Black Press Urged the People to Leave the South"
1940-41 The Migration Series, Panel No. 57:
"The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South"
1942 Tombstones
1947 War Series: Victory
1960 The Library

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