Museum of Modern Art | April 3 – September 7, 2015
In 1941, 23-year-old Jacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000) finished 60 tempera paintings on small hardboard panels, along with narrative captions for each, chronicling the mass migration of African Americans that had begun during World War I and continued as he worked. With broad areas of color, simplified forms, and a lively, ingenious sense of design, Lawrence frankly showed the harrowing reasons why these Americans fled the rural South and what they found in the sometimes less harrowing, urban North. As you journey from Panel 1 to Panel 60, you find a dramatic spectrum of human experience and an ever more ramifying story.
A product of the Great Migration, Lawrence was born in Atlantic City to Southern parents and spent most of his childhood in Pennsylvania. His parents separated in 1924, and when his mother went to New York to seek work in 1927, he and his siblings were placed in foster care in Philadelphia until joining her in Harlem in 1930.
Around 1935, Lawrence began painting scenes of Harlem. In interviews years later, he always made it clear that he would not have become an artist without the African American community of Harlem. Through the influence of great mentors—teachers, librarians, activists, intellectuals, and fellow artists—he found his genre: black history and experience.
By the time he started the Migration panels, he’d already completed three series: 41 paintings about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the black leader of Haitian independence (1938); 32 paintings about Frederick Douglass (1939); and 31 paintings about Harriet Tubman (1940). Working serially on small panels enabled Lawrence to convey disparate scenes with concentrated force. As he’d done for the earlier series, he extensively researched the Great Migration at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).
For this new series, he chose a palette of yellow, red, blue, green, brown, black, and white, often but not always using every color in individual panels. He’d rented a studio large enough to accommodate all 60 pictures, and worked on them simultaneously. These factors unify the series. So does the consistent panel size of 12 × 18 inches, although Lawrence oriented half the pictures horizontally, half vertically—in service, it’s clear, to the expression of each image rather than to a system. The irregular rhythm of horizontal to vertical panels adds to the Migration Series’ many senses of movement and is among the rewards of seeing its entirety.
The complete series was first shown at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in 1941—and was the first time an African American artist was represented by a New York gallery. Soon after, Halpert brokered the sale of the even-numbered panels to MoMA and the odd-numbered to what’s now the Phillips Collection. The work should never have been divided, and two decades have passed since it was last seen intact.
Short of reuniting the panels forever, MoMA’s exhibition couldn’t be better. A corridor leading to the show features a timeline of the African American population of Northern cities between 1900 and 1970; in that time, over six million left the South. Entering the exhibition, you’re in the heart of it: a large gallery containing all 60 panels, with the original captions printed on the wall. At a table of computers, you can read Lawrence’s revised 1993 captions (they’re also in the catalogue and on the extensive exhibition website). In adjacent galleries, troves of other art and documents shed terrific contextual light. Highlights include eight of Lawrence’s early Harlem paintings and three from his first trip to the South (made just after he completed the Migration Series), which bluntly depict segregation and which Halpert refused to show; footage of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial and Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit” and excellent photographs of the South and North from the 1930s and ’40s.
In the opening panel of Lawrence’s Migration Series, African Americans of all ages press into three destination portals of a railroad station: “Chicago,” “New York,” and “St. Louis.” As in many of the paintings, the individual figures are comprised of interlocking, simplified shapes, forming a greater whole. This tightly packed mass rushes in from the lower right, where the figures are largest, moving left (all profiles point that way) and growing smaller as they enter the portals at the top. Those doorways balance the organic shapes of the figures and establish three zones, which are similar enough to suggest the station’s architecture but asymmetrical enough to create dynamic visual intervals across the painting.
Twelve panels convey the Southern conditions that spurred African Americans to arduous migration, including devastating floods, the crop-wrecking boll weevil, poverty, hunger, social and legal injustice, sharecropping, child labor, and lack of education. Panels 15 and 16 deal with lynching.
Panel 22 is among the haunting scenes—and is perennially relevant. Three black men are shackled together with yellow handcuffs. They occupy most of the painting, standing with their backs to us and with their heads bent low. They’re positioned just off center, facing the black jail bars of the top third of the picture. A deep, sky-blue space beyond the bars amplifies the sensation of imprisonment. The cropping of the figure on the right suggests that these are just three of a string of prisoners. The image is stark, the figures like cut-outs. Most of the men’s clothing is black, linking them to the jail bars. The figure on the left wears pants whose shapes also echo bars. The figure on the right wears striped pants that both rhyme with the bars and resemble a prison uniform. The man in the center wears a blood-red coat. As always, Lawrence’s evenhanded tone in the caption lets the facts resound: “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.” If you didn’t know this is a 74-year-old painting about a South that African Americans fled in fear, you might think it refers to recent NYPD stop-and-frisk practices, current prison rates for black men, or the April 19, 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray in the Northern city of Baltimore.
“And the migration spread,” reads the next panel. This and similar captions are like a refrain throughout the series, as is the painting itself, which, like seven others, features crowds and luggage in train stations. Such images, which often follow traumatic scenes, provide some relief through the promise of movement for the travelers and the tremendous visual motion in the images.
Another counterpoint to oppression comes in domestic scenes, such as the lovely Panel 33, in which two figures, perhaps a mother and child, lounge in bed reading a letter from a relative in the North. And following scenes of new hardships in the North—race riots, labor camps, housing problems, and “different” forms of discrimination—Panel 58, featuring three black schoolgirls energetically writing numbers on a classroom chalkboard, reads like a joyous dance.
Throughout, Lawrence’s epic Migration Series shifts with agile grace between struggle and resilience, the particular and the universal. Ultimately, it conveys clear-eyed optimism. Arriving at the final panel, “And the migrants kept coming,” you feel that life in the North is the better way, but as the waiting travelers face you en masse for the first time in the series, looking across the train tracks, you imagine the wrenching stories they surely had to tell.