Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” unfolding across 60 painted panels each less than a foot square, is often compared to a film. It’s more like a musical score. It takes several clear themes — recurring subject matter; a unified color palette, and a visual vocabulary of vertiginously tilted planes and angles and snaky organic curves — and works a sequence of variations on them. “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans,” runs the caption to the first panel, which shows an interlocking jumble of bodies, like a jigsaw, in simple flat planes of unmixed color. And, interspersed with panels showing drought and race riots, tenements and prison time, the theme of the migrants returns, and returns, all the way through to No. 60: “And the migrants kept coming.”
The “Migration Series” retains legendary status. Documenting the move of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the 20th century, it was an immediate and explosive success for Lawrence, who was 23 when he painted it in 1941; 26 of its panels were reproduced over four double-pages in “Fortune” magazine before the series was even shown in a gallery. There was tremendous interest from collectors, though Lawrence didn’t want to break up the series, which he had painted as a unit, spreading all 60 panels out and applying the same unmixed colors — forest green, cornflower blue, rich yellow and a cool variant of burnt sienna — across them all, one color at a time. In the end, the series was split between the Museum of Modern Art, which got the even-numbered works, and the Phillips Collection, which got the odd ones, so that each collection at least traced the overall narrative arc. The series has now been reunited for a traveling exhibition, which was shown last year at MoMA and has now come to the Phillips.
It’s pointless to wring one’s hands over the fact that the series is usually divided — not least because this was vastly preferable to scattering it among 60 eager collectors, though any one of these jewel-like panels would be a treasure. Seeing it together, though, highlights the force of Lawrence’s deliberately and deceptively pseudo-primitive visual language, in which juxtapositions between adjacent images — the horizontal orientation of the bare-board Southern shack in Panel 30 against the vertical, luminous, Mondrianesque apartment buildings of Panel 31 — strengthen the cumulative effect.
Also striking is the way that Lawrence tells a story without the kind of characterization we tend to expect in narrative. The premium is not on individuality, but humanity. There are few clear faces in this series, and the clearest of them are white: less portraits than masks, be it of the doltish equipment operator in Panel 2 or the grimace of evil on a man splayed across an image of a race riot in Panel 50. There’s more characterization, though, in people’s postures and backs: in the contrast between a man in blue overalls, bent over his newspaper in Panel 34, and a policeman in a shirt of the same color, blocking people’s egress from a paddy wagon in Panel 42, an image with the crisp elegance of an illuminated manuscript.
And the empty airlessness of the tempera-paint surfaces gives eloquent expression to the pain of suffering. In Panel 10, “They were very poor,” two figures sit bowed under the weight of the sheer emptiness of the blue wall behind them. Even more lyrically and painfully, in “There were lynchings” (Panel 15), a figure is huddled in seemingly headless, limbless misery under a streaky pale sky, beneath the spike of a tree branch bearing an empty, dangling noose.
The show includes a third room with a few additional works by Lawrence and other African American artists active around the same period, including two beautiful little bronzes from 1929 and the early 1930s by Augusta Savage, one of Lawrence’s mentors (“Gamin,” a child’s portrait head), and by Richmond Barthe, whose “Blackberry Woman” strides calmly forward, balancing a basket on her head with one arm. Lawrence’s “Vaudeville,” from 1951, extends his involvement with surfaces, its ornate, decorative walls and clothes and colors evoking an American version of Gustav Klimt. “The Travelers,” from 1961, shows a visually fragmented family in a train station — continuing a theme from “The Migration Series,” which remained, throughout his long prolific life, his masterpiece.
“People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series” remains on display at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 8. It will continue on to Seattle, where Lawrence spent the last years of his life.