Jacob Lawrence’s Timeless Migrations

The Migration Series, Panel 18: The migration gained in momentum., 1940–41, Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917–2000, casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in.

Being at the right place at the right time is often luck. Opening Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series at Seattle Art Museum amid a storm of discriminatory policies targeting immigrants is something more. Lawrence’s chronicle of the Great Migration possesses an urgency most modern art shows can only dream of, deeply enhancing the viewer’s experience by hooking history to present day.

The modest one-room exhibit consists of 60 small tempera panels, each about the size of a laptop screen, each titled by Lawrence in a sentence or two, reading like a caption of the scene depicted. It is more than simply topical. 2017 marks the centennial of the painter’s birth. It was also the year when, with the Immigration Act, the United States denied entry to entire classes of foreigners into the county—particularly South Asian immigrants as well as a broad range of “undesirable aliens” from all over the world. As able European workers grew scarce during World War I, many African Americans made the trek from the rural South toward jobs in the urban North: the Great Migration. 

With soft tempera strokes, the first panel in Lawrence’s series evokes a crowd of colorful coats, hats, bags and brown skin. A fence surrounds their destinations: Chicago, New York and St. Louis, where job opportunities, escape from persecution and discrimination and a brighter future await. The figures carry brightly colored suitcases valises and hold children and coats close. 

The following panel depicts the strength and dynamism of immigrants through a pyramidal composition. In the sky, birds migrate in the same direction. For now, both groups are still in limbo. Scenes of migrants amassed in train stations, waiting rooms and railroad cars beside piles of luggage form a sort of chorus of the series, recurring every couple of panels. They are unrelenting, like the groups of migrants streaming north.

Today, more than 75 years after the creation of the series in 1940–1941, different immigrants embark into uncertain futures on the shores of Europe or Southern borders of the U.S. But Lawrence painted a specific migration—one he knew from inherited experience. His parents had moved from South Carolina to Virginia and later to Atlantic City, where he was born. Before relocating to Seattle in the 1970s, when he was in his 50s, to teach at the University of Washington, the painter lived in Harlem, a magnet for northerm migration. It was there that Lawrence, who in 1940 was 22, embarked upon his most ambitious project, The Migration of the Negro, later renamed The Great Migration.  

Upon completion, the series was shown at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan, making Lawrence the first black artist represented by a New York gallery. Two curators from prestigious institutions wanted to buy the series: MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, and Duncan Phillips, director of what is now the Phillips Collection. The solution was as simple as it was silly—they split the work in half. The Phillips Collection in Washington DC got the odd numbers, MoMA in New York the even. It meant that any visitor who wanted to see the artwork as a whole had to visit two different cities. Because the tempera panels are fragile, they do not move or appear together often. Recently, they were on view together at both MoMA and the Phillips. This exhibition marks the first time the panels are on view as a group on the West Coast in more than two decades. 

Lawrence conceived of his series as a single, monumental work of art. He worked on all panels at once, filling in each sketch one hue at a time before moving on to the next color. Ochres, oranges and darkening teals recur throughout the series. Those visual relationships are best observed from a distance, which is also a good way to grasp the modesty of Lawrence’s technique. The panels appear small and unimposing, but their style is commanding. Lawrence dubbed this style “dynamic cubism,” his flattened forms recalling European medieval and Renaissance tempera paintings, or even two-dimensional Egyptian depictions of children laboring in the fields from the side. 

Most intriguing is his deployment of cinematic and photographic techniques. Panel 7, for instance, titled “The migrant, whose life had been rural and nurtured by the earth, was now moving to urban life dependent on industrial machinery,” nears abstraction through blended strands of ochre, red, green and teal. It is both an ode to the earth and an extreme close-up. In the following panel, Lawrence zooms out to a flooded field, followed by a close-up of cotton crops ravaged by boll weevils. 

Throughout the series, Lawrence cut back and forth between the rural and the urban, the dire situation in the south and the new northern environment. He illustrates poverty and soaring food prices in a pair of sparse paintings. In one, two figures bow their heads saying grace before eating. They sit in an empty living room crowned by an empty pan. In the next panel, a thin child waits for a piece of fatback. Segregation is exemplified by two women, one black, one white, drinking from separate water fountains. A river cutting through the landscape divides them. 

Often, Lawrence avoided direct depictions of death and disease. The panel “There were lynchings” shows a lone, grief-stricken figure bent in sorrow beside to an empty noose hung on a tree. In another, three robed pallbearers, reduced to their hats, white gloves and black robes suggest the rising death toll due to tuberculosis and poor housing conditions. 

As the Great Migration spanned decades, Lawrence became a visual storyteller of history unfurling. In 1940, he said on the subject: “Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world. I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today.”

All these decades hence, the series transcends history. Through abstraction and sheer expressive power, Lawrence conveys his figures’ anonymity as well as their humanity. In the exhibition catalog published by MoMA and the Phillips Collection, writer Leah Dickerman suggests Lawrence’s depiction of faceless masses might have to do with the nature the Migration, “the first leaderless liberation movement in African-American history.” According to Dickerman, this series offers a new kind of history, one of ordinary people as actors on the historical stage. 

The Migration Series also exceeds history in a much more sinister way. the oppression Lawrence depicted—police attacking African-Americans; a white judge asserting his power over two anonymous Black figures; riots in St. Louis; immigrants being accused of stealing jobs—still exists. It’s all too familiar. Lawrence’s final panel, however, returns to an open-ended refrain. It shows a railroad track, faceless figures, and colorful coats and bags, described by this caption: “And the migrants kept coming.” Lawrence knew that the last chapters of the story remained unwritten. It remains so today. 

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series is on view through April 23 at Seattle Art Museum. Images courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.