Exhibition at The Phillips Collection through October 26, 2008
More than 65 years ago, a young artist named Jacob Lawrence set to work on an ambitious 60-panel series portraying the Great Migration, the flight of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North following the outbreak of World War I. By Lawrence's own admission, this was a broad and complex subject to tackle in paint — one never before attempted in the visual arts. Yet Lawrence had spent the past three years addressing similar themes of struggle, hope, triumph, and adversity in his narrative portraits on Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad, (1940), Frederick Douglass, abolitionist (1939), and Toussaint L'Ouverture, liberator of Haiti (1938).
For Lawrence, telling the story of the migration meant telling a story deeply wedded to his life experiences. Born in Atlantic City to parents who had made the migration North from Virginia and South Carolina, Lawrence spent his childhood in Philadelphia and Harlem among a continually expanding community of southern migrants. "I was part of the migration. I grew up hearing tales about people coming up, another family arriving," Lawrence later explained. Many in Lawrence's community had a migration story to tell, from the street orators and preachers to the librarians, teachers, and actors of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Lawrence heard their stories, observed their struggles, and witnessed firsthand the realities of life in the "Promised Land."
Lawrence found a way to make the experience of migration vivid through the power and beauty of the painted image, weaving together 60 small panels into one grand statement. With remarkable clarity and expression, Lawrence set down hard truths through the barest means of simple colors, gestures, symbols, and patterns, revealing both the frailties and the strengths of the human condition. Before painting the series, Lawrence researched the subject and wrote captions to accompany each panel. Like the storyboards of a film, he saw the panels as one unit, painting all 60 simultaneously, color by color, to ensure their overall visual unity. The poetry of Lawrence's epic statement emerges from its staccato rhythms and recurring symbols of movement: the train, the station, ladders, stairs, windows, and people on the move carrying bags and luggage.
Following the tradition of the West African storyteller or griot, who spins tales of the past that have meaning for the present and the future, Lawrence reminds us of our shared history and at the same time invites us to reflect on the migration experience today: "To me, migration means movement. There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty. 'And the migrants kept coming' is a refrain of triumph over adversity. If it rings true for you today, then it must still strike a chord in our American experience." © The Phillips Collection, 2008