Modernism abounds with numerous artists who were bold enough to deal with subjects that were considered taboo at the time, and sadly still are. Investigating matters of race, national identity, and migration is of the most important in the current moment amid the global refugee crisis and the racial tensions. Therefore, it is important to trace back the continuity of such approaches and practices especially starting from the 1930s when the world becomes overshadowed by fascism in a quite a similar manner like nowadays.
Empowered by the Harlem Renaissance, Jacob Lawrence felt his painting should reflect the ongoing struggle of Black Americans in a search for equality and dignified existence. Looking from a contemporary stance, Lawrence’s entire oeuvre shows not only technical innovation and the embodiment of the modernist paradigm, but also a concise and well-rounded agenda centered on the examination of the notion of humanity.
The artist is best known for the sixty-panel The Migration Series that features the Great Migration of African Americans, with eight of his paintings from the iconic series lost at the end of World War II. Interestingly so, another sixty-panel series called Struggle: From the History of the American People, made fifteen years later, had the same destiny - although Lawrence created only thirty paintings, five of them have been lost. Neither was seen since 1960 until recently when a visitor went to see a new retrospective show Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and realized that his neighbors owned one of the missing panels.
Eventually, encouraged by their neighbor the curious museum-goer, the owners who had bought the paintings at a charity auction six decades ago reached out to the museum. After a close evaluation and authentication of the painting titled There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786, it was determined that it was indeed the missing panel that is now on display at the museum until the end of this month.
After his parents separated, at the age of twelve Jacob Lawrence moved with his mother from Atlantic City to Harlem. Shortly afterwards, he attended public school along with an arts program at the Utopia Children’s Center run at the time by painter Charles Alston. In the early 1930s, Lawrence joined a New Deal program in upstate New York, moved back to Harlem a few years later, and became part of the Harlem Community Art Center. There, he meets the sculptor Augusta Savage, the director of the organization, as well as the historian and Charles “Professor” Seifert, who had a significant influence on Lawrence’s work.
In 1938, Lawrence had a solo exhibition and started working for the WPA Federal Art Project. Around that time, the artist produced some of his earliest street scenes, and series that examined the lives of Afro-American social reformer and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, also an American abolitionist and political activist.
In the early 1940s, Lawrence starts working on the mentioned Migration series that is considered by many as one the most important series in the history of American modern art. The panels followed by text reflected the social, political, economic, and environmental implications and the hardship of these migrations.
The Migration series was first exhibited at Downtown Gallery in New York in 1941, and the same year Lawrence married the artist Gwendolyn Knight. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Coast Guard, while in 1946 the artist starts teaching painting at the famous Black Mountain College that was centered on the figure of the renowned Bauhaus master, Josef Albers.
Lawrence continued painting throughout his life while in parallel teaching at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, the New School for Social Research in New York, the Art Students League in New York, Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and the University of Washington in Seattle.
This publication sets the precedent for the next generation of Lawrence scholars and studies in modern and contemporary discourse. The American Struggle explores Jacob Lawrence's radical way of transforming history into art by looking at his thirty panel series of paintings, Struggle . . . from the History of the American People (1954–56). Essays by Steven Locke, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Austen Barron Bailly, and Lydia Gordon mark the historic reunion of this series―seen together in this exhibition for the first time since 1958. In entries on the panels, a multitude of voices responds to the episodes representing struggle from American history that Lawrence chose to activate in his series. The American Struggle reexamines Lawrence's lost narrative and its power for twenty-first century audiences by including contemporary art and artists. Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas invite us to reconsider history through themes of struggle in ways that resonate with Lawrence's artistic invention. Statements by these artists amplify how they and Lawrence view history not as distant period of the past but as an active imaginative space that is continuously questioned in the present tense and for future audiences.
Although less known than the Migration series, The American Struggle is equally intriguing and important. Consisting of thirty panels featuring American historical events from 1775 through 1817 (from Patrick Henry’s famous “liberty” speech to westward expansion), this series show the full extent of Lawrence’s version of dynamic cubism. The striking paintings, most of them accompanied by quotations from historical texts, centered on a bloody conflict and sacrifice are considered among Lawrence's most sophisticated works reflecting his matureness and intellect, but also a firm desire for indicating a role women and people of color had in America's early fight for independence.
The context of the time when Lawrence painted the series is crucial for understating the same. The series produced between 1954 and 1956 at the peak of the Cold War, the consolidation of the Civil Rights movement and the desegregation of public schools, was made as a direct commentary of the rapid socio-political transformation America was going through at that time.
The lost painting There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786 marked with a number 16 in a series of thirty panels features Shays' Rebellion, an uprising led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays against heavy taxation and political corruption in Massachusetts. The same was verified according to the 1956 brochure following the first public display of The Struggle series in New York at the Alan Gallery. Two years later, the panels were exhibited again at the gallery and ever since they have not been seen as a group until earlier this year when this exhibition debuted at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts.
Alongside The American Struggle series, the current exhibition at The Met features four works on paper by the artist from the museum’s collection to underline his connection with Met where few of his works were held since 1942.
An extensive catalog that brings new analyses of the series accompanies the exhibition along with another companion publication titled American Struggle: Teens Respond to Jacob Lawrence.
In a brief statement for the public, the Met’s director Max Hollein summarized the importance of this exhibition:
This exhibition celebrates one of the great modern artists through a stunning and important body of work. Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series reflects on events in American history that were certainly poignant when they were created in the 1950s, and surely resonate today in the midst of the renewed national struggle and reckoning regarding racial justice and national identity.
Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 1 November 2020.
Featured image: Jacob Lawrence - There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786, Panel 16, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Private Collection. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen.