to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
I'm Barbara Klein. This week we tell about an important series of historical
paintings created by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. This modernist
painter was only twenty-four when his Migration Series made him nationally
famous. All sixty paintings in this
series are currently being shown at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
These skillful works are as expressive and meaningful today as they were when
Jacob Lawrence first painted them over sixty years ago.
The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence
is as much a history lesson as it is a shining example of artistic skill.
Starting around nineteen ten, thousands of African-Americans living in the
rural southern part of the United States began to move, or migrate, to northern
industrial cities. Many African-Americans left their homes in the South to
escape discrimination, a worsening economy, and agricultural problems. The
beginning of World War One in nineteen fourteen created an even larger demand
for workers in the factories of the North.
is estimated that over a million African-Americans moved north during this
period to seek better jobs. They moved to cities like New York; Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois and Detroit, Michigan. This movement of people
had a big effect on the economy and communities of the South.
Lawrence had a personal connection with the Great Migration. Before he was
born, his own parents moved from the South to Atlantic City, New Jersey, then
later to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Smithgall is the associate curator at the Phillips who organized this show on
Jacob Lawrence. Here, she talks about the importance of his Migration
SMITHGALL: "It really taps such
universal themes that we still can really relate to. We think about themes of
struggle, and perseverance and resilience, and these qualities that really are
still at the heart of the immigrant experience in this country today. We have
over two hundred million migrants estimated in the world today. One of the
things about the series is that it transcends its own time. It is important
historically, but at the same time it very much informs our present and our
thinking about the future."
In nineteen thirty, when Jacob was
thirteen, his mother moved him and his brother and sister to the Harlem area of
New York City. During the nineteen thirties Lawrence began taking art classes
with the artist Charles Alston. First he took classes at the Utopia Children's
House, then later at the Harlem Art Workshop. The Workshop was supported by the
Works Progress Administration, or W.P.A. This federal government agency
employed people to work on public buildings and other projects.
nineteen thirty-eight Jacob Lawrence began working for the W.P.A. He created
several series of historical paintings that show important people and events in
African-American history. These include "The Life of Frederick Douglass" and
"The Life of Harriet Tubman."
nineteen forty, Jacob Lawrence received a grant from the Julius Rosenwald
Fund. His proposed project was to paint
sixty panels called "The Migration of the Negro."
fifteen hundred dollar grant, Lawrence found a studio that was big enough for
him to be able to lay out the sixty works at the same time. He did a great deal
of research at the Schomburg Collection in Harlem to better understand the
experiences of people who lived during the migration.
used a special method to work on this series. First, he wrote out the text that
would describe the sixty paintings. Then, he prepared drawings. When it was
time to paint, he worked on all the panels at the same time. For example, he
would apply the brown and black colors to all sixty panels before continuing on
to the next color. He did this so that all of the paintings would have a visual
unity. Jacob Lawrence updated the title of this series and its captions in nineteen
painting in the Migration Series measures about thirty by forty-five
centimeters. Lawrence worked with tempera paints or poster paints on a
hardboard material. He chose these paints because they were low in cost. And
Lawrence applied these pure colors directly onto the work surface to achieve a
bold and energetic effect.
Migration Series starts with a panel showing a large crowd of African-Americans
in line at a bus or train station. The people in the crowd wear different
colored hats and clothing. They are waiting in line under signs that show the
name of the city where they are going. The words under this panel read: "During
World War One there was a great migration North by Southern African-Americans."
Lawrence's style is very bold and direct. His figures are not exact or
detailed. Instead, they are stylized to suggest emotion and movement. He told a
complex story using simple but expressive forms.
Migration Series continues with panels that show the living conditions of
African-Americans in the South. You learn about the insects and flooding which
severely damaged cotton crops. You learn about the increased price of food
during the war, which made life even more difficult for poor southern farmers.
Elsa Smithgall describes for us one
panel she finds especially expressive.
ELSA SMITHGALL: "The panel we're looking at is number
eleven. The caption reads 'The War had doubled the cost of food, making life
even harder for the poor.' And, this panel is to suggest the impact that
poverty played in stimulating the migration."
the painting, a woman stands at a table cutting a piece of meat while a thin
little boy watches her actions with big eyes. Miz Smithgall explained the
meaning of the kind of meat Jacob Lawrence chose to represent. It is fatback,
one of the least costly cuts of pork meat. The two stand together in a room
empty except for a table and candlelight hanging on the wall. The scene is very
simple, but very emotionally expressive.
SMITHGALL: "He enlivens the entire scene with the color and the choice of
color. And you notice there is a green wall and the woman is wearing this
lovely red dress. So that there is a sense of creating some beauty within an
otherwise very devastating kind of situation of life."
series continues with repeated images of migrants moving on trains towards the
big northern cities. You see scenes of the factories where the migrants found
work. And the southern communities they left behind. Panel thirty-three reads:
"Letters from relatives in the North told of the better life there."
It shows a woman and her child in a big
green bed. The woman is reading a letter. The scene is painted from a striking
angle. It is as though the viewer was looking at the woman from the headboard
of her bed.
The series also shows examples of
discrimination the migrants faced both in their lives in the South and in their
new lives in the North.
forty-nine, you see an eating area in which black people are separated from
white people by a yellow barrier. Panel fifty-nine describes that in the North,
African-Americans had the freedom to vote. You can see a group waiting in line
at a voting center.
The Migration Series immediately
received great attention from the art world. After completing the works in
nineteen forty-one, Jacob Lawrence traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, with his
new wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight. This was their first visit to the South.
It was there that they learned that twenty-six of Lawrence's
paintings from the series were published in Fortune magazine. Later, there was an
exhibit of the entire series at the Downtown Gallery in New York City. Jacob
Lawrence became the first African-American to be represented by a major New
York City commercial art gallery.
Soon, the arts supporter Adele Rosenwald
Levy bought the even numbered panels for one thousand dollars. She gave the
works to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The Phillips Collection
bought the odd number panels for the same amount of money. Because Lawrence
repeated subjects in the series, it still tells a clear story with only thirty
of the panels.
Since two museums each own half of the
series, it is a rare and special event to see the entire series exhibited in
one place. Later in his life, Jacob Lawrence said he did not create the
Migration Series to make a political statement. He said it was just a part of
his life and a part of the lives of his friends and family.
Lawrence said that he hoped the series would show what human beings can
experience and survive. His Migration Series tells an important part of
American history using the artistic skill of one of America's great painters.
Our program was written and produced by
Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember.
I'm Barbara Klein. You can see some of the paintings of the Migration Series at
voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA