The Migration Series by American artist Jacob Lawrence
Bold. Brilliant. Monumental.
From January 21 – April 23 2017, visitors to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) have the rare opportunity to view a treasured work of art in its entirety: The Migration Series by American artist Jacob Lawrence. Thanks to loans from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and The Phillips Collection, the exhibit is now on display for the first time in over two decades on the West Coast. The two museums share the complete, fragile collection of sixty panels: the Phillips houses the odd-numbered panels, MoMA the even-numbered panels.
The Migration Series at SAM commemorates the 100th anniversary of Jacob Lawrence’s birth in his adopted home city. Lawrence had accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington in 1971. Together with his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, the couple were strong supporters of the arts in Seattle.
Former student and leader of the Northwest African American Museum, artist Barbara Earl Thomas describes Lawrence as “humble and generous.” Thomas elaborates: “He helped you be the best at what you wanted to be, not who he thought you should be. He went through many risings and fallings in his life, but his philosophy was, if you believe in what you’re doing, keep doing it.”
Lawrence completed the series when he was just 23 years old (1941). The panels tell the story of the exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North between World War I and World War II.
The artist had received a government sponsorship for the arts and was living in Harlem. Here he conceived the idea of a large mural representation of this significant chapter in American history. His own parents had been part of the early migration wave. He had absorbed the history of the Movement by listening to the personal stories of his mother and her friends. The Migration Series captures their stories in spare, unflinching, colorful detail on canvas.
To bring the Movement to life, Lawrence created the epic journey in casein tempera on hardboard panels, each measuring 12 x 18 inches. Through unity of color, composition and display, the overall effect is rhythmic, an echo of the Movement itself. In a 1998 interview with MoMA curator Ann Temkin, the artist explained how he worked quickly from drawings to painted completion over a six to eight-month period. In painting all sixty panels in the same color at one time, he intended for the panels to be considered a unit.
In his vivid, vibrant portrayal of the African American exodus, artist Jacob Lawrence invites us to walk with him through a significant event in American history.
The story begins with a simple inscription in Panel 1: “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans.” In this one image, we sense the scope of the Movement. We view the scene from behind a multitude of migrants bound by train for Chicago, New York and St. Louis.
Continuing through the exhibit, we move alongside the migrants as they head north. In Panel 3, we learn “From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.” Panel 6 shows us how “The trains were crowded with migrants.”
In Panel 12, “The railroad stations were at times so over-packed with people leaving that special guards had to be called in to keep order.”
Viewing the flat, faceless, angular forms of a collective in transition has a somber effect. The narrative and images of the harsh social conditions that drove the exodus reinforce the mood: “They were very poor” (Panel 10). “Food had doubled in price because of the war” (Panel 11). “For African Americans there was no justice in the southern courts” Most stark of all, “There were lynchings” (Panel 15). In the shapes of the downcast, hunched figures viewers experience the weight of social oppression and upheaval on the journey to cultural change.
Yet despite facing new challenges in the North, like discrimination (Panel 49), house bombings (Panel 51), race riots (Panel 52) and tuberculosis (Panel 55), Lawrence’s panels evoke resilience. The migrants kept coming.
Ultimately, the artist leads us to a hopeful vision. In the final panels of his series, migrants receive more educational opportunities (Panel 58) and the right to vote (Panel 59).
If You Go:
Seattle Art Museum
1300 First Ave., Seattle, WA 98101
(206) 654-3100 & TTY (206) 654-3137
For more information, visit:
Seattle Art Museum (SAM)
What about you, Wanderboomers? What’s your experience with the art of Jacob Lawrence?