Sunday, January 23, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #17 - And the Migrants Kept Coming

And the Migrants Kept Coming, Jacob Lawrence, 1940-41. Tempera on gesso on composition board, 12 x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

Jacob Lawrence did not have a stable life - his parents divorced and he moved from one foster care home to another until he was about 13, then he and his brothers and sisters went back to live with their mother. He took art classes early and went on to study at the Harlem Art Workshop, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Artists' School. Outside of the art classes he took, the also got a lot of energy and inspiration from the artists that had flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. (See the post done about Aaron Douglas on this blog in October 2010)

He was a mover and a shaker. He had a studio while he was a student and got a solo exhibition of this work at the Harlem YMCA in 1938. At that time, he made small paintings reflecting daily life in Harlem. He was a product of his neighborhood and drew a lot of inspiration and identity from Harlem. He also was interested in history and did a series about Frederick Douglass, a former slave and orator. These were well-received, so he did another series about the Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, Haitian liberator Troussaint L'Ouverture, and abolitionist John Brown. These series prepared him for a huge project he would undertake: a 60-painting series on the Great Migration. This is the work that would jettison him into the larger art world - he became the first African American artist to have one of his works included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This work, And the Migrants Kept Coming, was the last painting in the Great Migration Series. A crowded railroad platform is shown and the wavy lines beneath this platform suggest water beneath a dock. The composition is crowded with people, young and old with their luggage. The way the image is laid out, you can imaging people stretching beyond the canvas edges in both directions. The people lack faces or individualized features - this helps the viewer think of them as "anyman" and connects to the larger idea of vast numbers of people looking for a better life; people who are willing to leave their own lives behind in the hopes of finding a better one. He uses only a few colors, but even though his figures are reduced to shapes, the viewer recognizes the image as many men, women and children on the move. There is not texture or nuance in this painting, and the paint he uses is a matte finish - a finish that is dull and unreflective. All of the paintings in this series use the same elements of simplified shapes out of seven colors which unifies the group and makes the series visually cohesive.

Many African American people were poor sharecroppers in the South - they owned nothing and eked out a subsistence living. The industrial boom centered in the northern part of the United States in the early part of the 20th century and promised jobs and a better life. Huge numbers of African Americans migrated to the north and poured into cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and New York. Because discrimination was still a stronghold across the nation at that time, these immigrants would form their own neighborhoods such as Harlem in New York. Their move to these new cities was a mixed bag - they may have found work and a new life, but they did not escape the prejudice and discrimination that they had experienced in the South. Racial tensions resulted from this new influx of people.

Lawrence's documentation of this phenomenon is based in history. He researched the Great Migration and strove to document and educate the viewer about the event. Each panel has a short title that is descriptive of the scene. The early paintings depict scenes of life from the South and show the reasons the people decided to leave. There are images of withered cotton plants and is entitled, "They left because the boll weevil had ravaged the cotton crop." The middle paintings go back and forth between the South and the North. Then the later paintings show the trials and the triumphs of the migrants in their new lives. These paintings resemble a storyboard for a cinematic undertaking. The critics responded so well to this monumental work the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art fought over who would own the complete series. In the end they split the paintings with the Phillips getting the odd-numbered panels and MoMA receiving the even numbered panels. Cool! How about that? He may have also been the first African American artist to have two major museums fight over his work!

Jacob Lawrence self-portrait, 1977, gouache on paper

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