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Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series from the Phillips Collection

June 14 - August 31, 2004

 

 

AN AMERICAN EPIC IN PATTERNS AND COLORS

By Mark Cole, Columbus Museum of Art Curator of American Art

 

An American epic told through vivid patterns and colors, Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series from the Phillips Collection is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art June 14 through August 31, 2004. One of the great storytellers of his generation, Jacob Lawrence developed a highly distinctive style to bring to life important historical events. His powerful narrative of the Great Migration unfurls over thirty panels chronicling the struggle, strength, and perseverance of African Americans in search of a better life in the North. The powerful Migration Series ranks as one of the great visual and social documents of twentieth-century American art. (right: Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro (panel No.1), 1940-41, casein, tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 inches, Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. © Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation.)

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917. His move to Harlem in 1930 proved central to his artistic maturation. Raised among the emerging African American writers, artists, and musicians, who were a manifestation of the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence was the first major painter trained in and by the African American community.

Inspired by the expressive power of abstraction while also sensitive to the struggle and hardships of the people in his community, Lawrence defined a new mode of modern art, distilling subject matter based on the experience of life around him into bright colors and elemental shapes. Lawrence also painted what he learned from Harlem storytellers, and by the age of 21 had chronicled the lives of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglas, and Harriet Tubman.

In 1941, Lawrence burst onto the national scene with The Migration Series which was exhibited at the prestigious Downtown Gallery in New York City. Soon after, two major museums-The Phillips Collection, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York-each purchased half of the series. At twenty-four, Lawrence became one of the first African Americans to receive acclaim in the ostensibly segregated art world of the 1940s.

Lawrence's The Migration Series Panel no. 1 portrays a crowd of travelers lugging their belongings through in a train station, moving together in one direction amidst a backdrop of gates announcing the cities of "Chicago," "New York" and "St. Louis." In The Migration Series Panel no. 57, Lawrence renders a woman hard at work over her wash tub, laboring to raise money to move north. The bold colors and expressive forms in these panels convey with stark poignancy the aspirations, determination, and dedication of individuals and families striving for a better existence. Lawrence's distinctive combination of abstraction and socially relevant subject matter along with his vivid palette and patterns make him a quintessential American modern artist. (right: Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro (panel No.49), 1940-41, casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 inches, Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. © Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation.)

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