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Jacob Lawrence
American Artist 1917 - 2000

Review of the Special Interest Morning led by Richard Cupidi
on April 1st 2017

Richard Cupidi is a well-known art lecturer with a special interest in American art and culture.  Many of those who had enjoyed his lectures on Georgia O’Keeffe joined with other members for a memorable morning, this time focusing on the work of the Black American, Jacob Lawrence.  Not a single work by Lawrence is held by any gallery or museum in the UK or Europe, with the exception of the Vatican Museum.  Both here and in America his work is not widely known and Richard sees this as a consequence of the racism that has so profoundly shaped America’s history.

Born in Atlantic City in 1917, Lawrence’s family moved to follow work.  His parents separated and his mother moved with her three children to Harlem when he was 12.  With a single mother, two siblings in and out of care and leaving school early to help support the family, few would have been positive about his prospects.  However, at this time Harlem was experiencing a burgeoning of artistic activity as writers, artists and musicians contributed to what became known as the Harlem Renaissance.  Always drawing and painting with whatever materials he could find, Lawrence was spotted aged 14 by the sculptress Augusta Savage who encouraged him to attend the after-school Harlem Arts Centre.

Though artists taught here, essentially Lawrence was technically self-educated.  Richard explained how first and foremost Lawrence was a story teller steeped in the West African tradition of the griot, the wandering oral story teller.  We should view Lawrence as the visual story teller who painted the world he knew.  He was not a political artist but recorded the politics of his community.

At a time when a Black American would not have had access to art galleries and art academies Lawrence, encouraged by Augusta Savage, studied at the Harlem Art Workshop sponsored by the Workers Progress Administration (WPA) from 1932 to 1937.  A Roosevelt initiative, the WPA paid people to work including artists, writers and photographers and much of Lawrence’s early work was sponsored by the WPA.

With our first sight of his work, The Butcher Shop (1938), we were introduced to his simple bold geometry, the anonymous black figures, the white butcher and only the black and white pigeons appearing to coexist.  A harsh message that does not get lost in detail, a childlike simplicity that does not need to be over thought.  With this, as with all his examples of Lawrence’s work, Richard encouraged us to answer the question ‘What do you see?’ and members were vocal in giving their own interpretations of the images.

Lawrence captured scenes from Harlem life, the children playing under the water sprinkler on a hot city day, painting not only what he saw but also what he heard.  Black history was not being taught in America’s schools, so Lawrence chronicled the untold historical stories.

"General L'Ouverture, statesman and military genius, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and revered by the blacks"
National Archives and Records Administration, USA

Richard examined the work Lawrence did as a number of series.  He began by focusing on Lawrence’s series about Toussaint L’Ouverture.  This ex-slave overthrew French colonial rule and slavery in 18th century Haiti to establish the first black republic.  Lawrence painted the 41 panels in around six months, each one about A4 size, dimensions he was used to and saw as no constraint on his style which always remained simple.  And 41 because he did not see how you could tell the story in just one.  For Lawrence serial imagery, the repetition of patterns and colours secured the telling of the story.

In another series of 31 panels for the WPA he tells the 19th century story of Harriet Tubman.  Born a slave, she succeeded in running away to freedom in the North and became a ‘conductor’ on the underground railroad that helped others to follow a route to freedom.  Using poster paints, simple primary colours and his own captions, Lawrence helps the viewer connect the history to the visual narrative.  Illustrating his talk with a number of the panels from this series, Richard reminded us that in a time when black Americans were forbidden to read, write and have maps, such journeys north to find freedom were perilous, undertaken at night and in the constant fear of lynching.  To the background of Alan Lomax’s recording of a chain gang, we viewed Lawrence’s depiction of shackled slaves and of Hannah following the river as her guide to the north.

The third body of work Richard focused on was the 1940-41 series, The Migration of the Negro.  At a time when no scholarship or grant was available to a Black American artist, Lawrence was supported in this work by a ‘loan’ from the Rosenwald Foundation with the understanding that he was to default on repayment.

In this 60-panel series, the continuity of the story of this mass migration is achieved by using the same colours in the same way throughout and simple geometric shapes.  Egg wash paints on A4 panels; he painted all the reds, then all the blues etc. across all 60.  He composed all the matter-of-fact captions before he painted the panels and they are an integral part of the image.  By this stage in his career Lawrence was receiving the acclaim of other artists and in a brave curatorial move this series was exhibited in the Baltimore Art gallery and later at MOMA.

The subject of his work was based on the experiences of his own family and the recollections of the people in his community about the migration from the old slave South to the industrial North at a time of labour shortages.  Though slavery had ended in the South, servitude persisted.  In the first morning session we concentrated on the panels about leaving the South, the poverty, the dejection, the injustice experienced in the court system.  Richard’s readings from the poetry of Langston Hughes enhanced our understanding of this mass movement.

There followed a welcome coffee break complete with music of the era and excellent refreshments before the second half of our session with Richard.

Viv King

The second talk began with the playing of a gospel song – “This Train” –singing of the train to freedom.  Richard then discussed further Lawrence’s Migration Series, painted on cardboard, depicting the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North.  A painting of 2 dejected people followed, showing an empty basket, hanging from a railroad spike, an empty pot, and an empty bowl.  “They were very poor”.

Not only did southern negroes suffer poverty, but also segregation meant hostility.  And there were lynchings – a picture shows a cowed dehumanised figure on a river bank, with a sinewy branch over which hangs a noose.  Up to 1918 official figures record over 4,500 lynchings of negroes in the South, but unofficially there were many more.

It was interesting to hear that the Black press urged people to leave the south, as this indicates that black Americans were literate; it has been assumed that their culture was predominantly oral, and so it comes as a surprise to learn that they could read.  As they moved northwards, many worked on the railroads, hence the cross reference in Lawrence’s works to the railroad spike.  Another painting shows just rail tracks (with spikes), curving north, but is it taking them anywhere?

Migrants Cast Their Ballots (1974)
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

Pittsburgh was one of the major industrial centres which attracted the migrants in large numbers.  This provided a different industrial landscape for Lawrence, but he also painted real people, whole families with smiling faces and with food in a basket, as opposed to his earlier depictions.  However, they still suffered from discrimination, albeit of a different nature to the South.  Here, he shows segregation in cafes and libraries – a rope barrier separates white from black.

The influx of the black migrants lead to race riots all over the North.  Black workers were used as strike breakers; white workers feared that the blacks were taking their jobs.  Despite this, there existed an infrastructure for successful negroes, who tended to view their fellow migrants with aloofness and disdain.  Lawrence depicted them typically wearing white gloves – no manual labour here!  In addition, there were better educational facilities for the negro in the North.  The picture of 3 girls, growing in height, learning simple numeracy, demonstrates this.

The migrants kept on coming.  Several of Lawrence’s paintings illustrate the relevance of the railway.  Masses of migrants waiting patiently on platforms for the train to freedom, waiting for better things to come; then further depictions of them lining up to depart the station at their destination.  Always waiting, always patient.

The Legend of John Brown  In 1941 Lawrence completed 22 gouache paintings depicting the story of John Brown, who was white, fostering a rebellion of slaves.  In 1859, he and 21 white and black rebels marched on Harpers Ferry.  The picture of slightly distorted marchers, but clear bayonets over their shoulders, was most effective.  Needless to say, John Brown was defeated and hanged.

The Harlem Series 1942/46  Lawrence found inspiration in the streets of Harlem, where he had been raised.  The colours in his paintings were more vivid, but he yet also depicted the life and death struggles of living there.  Tombstones analyses the metaphysical fabric of this; in the basement, tombstones, a shop above, and living accommodation over that.  On the other hand, another painting of the Barbershop shows the sociable element of the black community, and one of the black traditions.  White barbers would not cut negroid hair, and so a weekly visit to the barbershop provided a safe place for menfolk to bond, and to create a story telling circle.  Even in the poorest times, barbershops were frequented.

War Series  In 1947 Lawrence was drafted into the US Coast Guard, assigned as the artist to a mixed race ship.  Thus began a series of paintings about the effect of war, its uncertainty and pain.  The Letter shows a white man hunched over a desk reading a letter.  Was this his call-up paper, a “Dear John” letter, a notification of the death of someone?  Who knows.  Lawrence painted 14 panels in this series.  Victory shows a black soldier, again hunched over possibly his weapons, but with little sign of success or happiness.  A hollow victory as depicted.  After the war, black veterans returned to the same bigotry as before; nothing had changed.

In the 1950s, Lawrence became inspired again by the vitality of the Harlem community.  Brownstones painted in 1958, depicts a city street teeming with life, using more vivid colours than the flat colours used in his earlier work.  This work was part of the Harlem Renaissance and was one piece of his Renaissance Triptych.

Jacob Lawrence was the first black American artist to have his work displayed at Galleries.  He established a studio in Seattle and is quoted: “ I paint what I know about and what I have experienced…. When the subject is strong, simplicity is the only way to treat it”.  He used bold colours, simple shapes with dynamic explosions of colour.  His was a personal narrative, and he told black stories in colour.

Once again, I must praise Richard Cupidi for his presentation of work by an artist of whom few of our members were aware.  His style and interaction with the audience were once again proved memorable.

Philip Akroyd

Related Link (opens in new window):

Jacob Lawrence - The Migration Series

Our guide and mentor, Richard Cupidi