Editors' pick

The Great American Epic: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series

Painting/Drawing
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The Great American Epic: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series photo
(Detail from Lawrence's "There Were Lynchings."/Phillips Collection)
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Editorial Review

Lawrence started "The Migration of the Negro" -- that's the complete original title of his series -- in 1940, when he was 22. He was born in New Jersey to parents who'd recently left the South, had grown up in Pennsylvania and had lived in Harlem since his early teens. When he won a grant to paint the "Migration" pictures, Lawrence hadn't had much formal training and was barely launched on his career, though he'd been in contact with some of the artistic leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. ([Aaron] Douglas seems to have been an influence but not a mentor.)

The crucial thing about Lawrence's "Migration" is how it is so completely centered on its subject matter. The series was made in the great age of modernist style, whose consuming interest was in how a picture looked. Yet Lawrence's art is consumed with the story it wants to tell.

The 60 hardboard panels of "Migration," only 12 by 18 inches each, walk us through the flight of African Americans from the rural South around the time of World War I. We see Southern troubles: the boll weevil that destroyed the cotton crop, the lynchings, the unfair courts and oppressive labor practices, the poverty. We see the moment of migration: the black newspapers and Northern labor scouts encouraging migrants to move; the efforts of the Southern establishment to keep them from leaving; the crowded trains that carry them away. And we see the benefits and trials of their new Northern homes: jobs and better food and less overt persecution; ghettos and race riots and attacks on black buildings. It's clear that Lawrence's commitment to communicating these facts, as powerfully as possible, is greater than his interest in pretty-picture making.

Lawrence doesn't simply ignore the radical changes that had hit painting over the previous four decades. He couldn't work in any of the old realist techniques, because those were too closely tied with the bad old days they were born in. To be of their time, and to look forward with some semblance of hope, Lawrence's "Migration" paintings had to work in a timely, modern style that was widely seen as speaking to the future. But somehow, as a black man treating the outsider status of his race, his use of that vanguard style also had to register some opposition to it, as the product of oppressive white society.

That opposition is especially clear in the casual crafting of the "Migration" series. Almost all of Lawrence's forms and figures are stylized, as modern art demanded. But rather than sleek outlines and geometric elegance, they have sloppy contours and crude shapes. His broad areas of color have gaps and hesitations, as though filled in with magic markers by a slightly lazy kid. Lawrence avoids the fine surface polish often sought in the fine arts and goes instead for striking pictorial effects achieved with minimum labor. It's as though he recognizes a fully modern style as the only language he can credibly speak in but wants to insist that it's the message, rather than the language, that really matters to him.

By making his images un satisfactory, in terms of the highest standards of refined modern art, Lawrence says he's got different aims than such pioneers as Pablo Picasso and Fernand L├ęger, or American followers such as Stuart Davis and Charles Sheeler. Lawrence will work in a modernist style, but he refuses to advance its cause or move it on to its next stage. Fancy style, his pictures say, is inadequate to the subjects they're treating; it starts to fall apart when it comes face to face with matters of such weight. He takes care to spell those matters out as clearly as could be, one scene at a time.

There's never anything high-flown or needlessly complex in Lawrence's "Migration of the Negro," no allegory or coy symbolism or arcane references. It's meant to have the storytelling power of a Passion cycle on the walls of a medieval church.

And yet, like such frescoes, part of that power comes from how inadequate all images are to the stories they tell. Pictures have never been a simple replacement for narrative: Even Giotto's frescoes didn't function as the "bible of the unlettered" of the old cliche, as medievalists have been insisting for a decade or more. Instead, storytelling images work because of the effort it takes to decipher them -- to match them to the stories that you know, or to contemplate what unknown stories they might illustrate. And they work because that effort gets you looking that much closer and thinking that much harder about the situations depicted in them.

Lawrence's series, with its charged issues, appropriately demands a bit more effort even than usual. What precisely is the subject of the almost-abstract picture in Panel No. 7, captioned "The Negro, who had been part of the soil for many years, was now going into and living a new life in the urban centers"? (At least, that's its original caption. In the 1990s, Lawrence provided updated captions for most of the series.)

Or how about Panel 19, captioned "There had always been discrimination"? It takes a minute to make out the double drinking fountains, with a white woman at one and a black mother and daughter at the other. Lawrence retains just enough of modernism's disjunctions -- of the broken spaces and forms of cubism and futurism -- to stand for the painfully fractured world he's depicting, and to concentrate our minds on it. But there's never so much modernism that its style distracts from his subject.

-- Blake Gopnik (as part of a longer review, June 1, 2008)