Jacob Lawrence, whose entire epic Migration Series is now on display at MoMA, was wonderfully gifted, hard-working and fortunate. In 1941, Edith Halpert, the owner of the avant-garde Downtown Gallery, went to Harlem to explore the work of then totally ignored African-American artists. During that expedition she came across Lawrence’s Migration of the Negro, a series of narrative paintings illustrating the journey from the agrarian South to the industrialized North. Then as now the tiny images deliver a powerful message.
Lawrence, then only twenty-three, had spent months at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library researching the history of the migration and developing barebones captions for his future paintings. The first caption reads: “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes” (Panel 1). Each one of the sixty captions is poignant: “Child labor and lack of education was one of the reasons for people wishing to leave their homes” (Panel 24). “And the migrants kept coming” (Panel 60). (Text of the original 1941 captions, which were clarified and updated in 1999.)
The sixty paintings that accompany the captions are as fresh today as they were eighty-five years ago. They have the power and charm of the medieval stained glass windows that narrated the Bible to a population that was mostly illiterate. Lawrence’s images are sparse, each displaying only a few colors, people, scenes, or objects. The series begins with a mass of black people waiting for trains to take them to Chicago, New York and St. Louis. There are no details. Lattice panels, separating the crowd from trains, provide the painting with depths. A few dabs of yellow brighten the somber greens, blacks, brown and reds of the migrants.
Panel 5 depicts the upper portion of a locomotive rushing north, silhouetted against a deep blue sky, belching steam and clanging its stridently yellow bell. Lawrence shows us the landscape of the abandoned South, the hardship of the less than welcoming North, the starkness of their new homes, the drama of a funeral. His vocabulary is simple: A bare flight of stairs, the windowless walls of a Chicago slaughterhouse, a slab of meat… Because Lawrence worked simultaneously on all sixty panels, the colors and style of the entire series is coordinated. No wonder that Edith Halpert was impressed.
Surprisingly the art world recognized Lawrence’s genius. Even before his show at the Downtown Gallery, Fortune Magazine published twenty-six images of the Migration Series in its November 1941 issue. Fortune was the first mainstream magazine to pay a major tribute to an African-American artist. The show, as well as the reproduction of the work in the magazine, was a big success, even though the latter had to compete with the bombing of the American fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941. Edith Halpert also managed the sale of the series. Lawrence wanted the series to remain intact; in the end MoMA bought the even-numbered paintings and the Phillips got the odd ones. Each half-series is wonderful, though we are fortunate that sometimes we can view the entire series at once.