One of the most startling impressions that one takes away from seeing the reunited Migration Series at the Museum of Modern Art is how current the paintings still feel current in a way that Céline still does, or Christopher Isherwood, or John Steinbeck -- documenters of a very specific moment of transition, faithfully recording sensitive observations. Jacob Lawrence’s cycle of sixty paintings on the subject of the Northern Migration is both a landmark work for an artist who was just twenty-three years old when he began it, and it is a work of historical importance in American art of the 20th Century.
Lawrence, who had dropped out of school when he was sixteen, was encouraged by his single mother to take art classes and visit museums. He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop, in the basement of the New York Public Library branch on West 135th Street (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), where he met the painter and muralist Charles Alston, who became the first of several mentors who were struck by his talent and drive. Lawrence received a scholarship to the American Artists School on West Fourteenth Street where his fellow students included Ad Reinhardt and Elaine de Kooning. There he soon developed a personal pictorial style, which he called "dynamic cubism," of jagged compositions in bold, flat colors. He befriended and was influenced by writers including Jay Leyda, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes.
It was possibly the confluence of all these influences that make the Migration paintings so visually compelling over such a large cycle. Comparisons to Giotto or Michalangelo might be easy, but Lawrence was working on small panels, painting in casein almost like an animator filling in the colored "cells" of a film. While his simplified range of shape and color speed us along from panel to panel, he still manages to shift mood and feeling, like different scenes in a film, through superb character direction. In "Panel 4," (1940-41) which is captioned (Lawrence wrote the captions to all the works and meant for them to be explanatory verse) "The Negro was the largest source of labor to be found after all others had been exhausted," Lawrence shows a man hammering a spike, in mid-stroke. The spike is oversized but resembles a railroad spike, and the hammer feels heavy. Both these inanimate objects draw our attention, as he has left the figure more of an abstract shape than a human portrait, emphasizing the dehumanization of the people. Incongruously the action takes place inside, in an empty room with one window. With equal simplicity Lawrence gives us "Panel 16," (1940-41) captioned "Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave where one had occurred." Here is the emotional devastation of Picasso's Blue Period: a woman in a red dress slumps over a sharply raked dinner table, only an empty bowl and spoon, a metaphor for the emptiness we feel in her.
Like any good documentarian, Lawrence does not fail to give both sides of the story. A nattily dressed couple looks at us with disdain, if they are looking at all, in "Panel 53" (1940-41): "The Negroes who had been North for quite some time met their fellowmen with disgust and aloofness." And the final panel, "Panel 60" (1940-41), which reads “And the migrants kept coming,” leaves us in awe of the sheer mass of displaced humanity that was breaking in great waves against the shores of the industrial North.
A side exhibition of the music that was both an influence to Lawrence and a sonic record of the Harlem Renaissance accommpanies this exhibition to great effect. Thomas “Fats” Waller, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Lead Belly provide background material that has the musical equivalent and range of Lawrence’s paintings. Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" (in the accompanying video documentary) provides a fitting coda to Lawrence's story. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.