All 60 panels of Lawrence’s masterwork The Migration Series — depicting the exodus of African Americans from the rural south between World War I and World War II — will be shown together for the first time in more than two decades on the West Coast.
In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just 23 years old and living in Harlem, completed a series of 60 paintings about the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans to the urban North in the decades between World War I and World War II. This was his community’s story, told in images and words in poignant detail. Lawrence’s epic work stands as a landmark in the history of modern art that remains relevant today.
Lawrence conceived of The Migration Series as a single work of art, painting on all 60 panels at the same time to achieve unity of form and color. The complete work appears like a large mural painting, an art form that Lawrence admired and that gained new attention in the late 1930s and 1940s, thanks to government sponsorship and the role that public art was given in bringing the US out of the Great Depression. Fittingly, SAM will install the series like a mural.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether you go or not, the exhibition catalog, Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, grounds Lawrence's Migration Series in the cultural and political debates that shaped the young artist's work and highlights its continued resonance for artists and writers today. In 1941, Lawrence completed a series of 60 small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration, the mass movement of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North that began in 1915–16. Within months of its making, the Migration Series was divided between The Museum of Modern Art (even-numbered panels) and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (odd-numbered panels). The work has since become a landmark in the history of African American art, a monument in the collections of both institutions and a crucial example of the way in which history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era.
An essay by Leah Dickerman situates the series within contemporary discussions about black history and an artist's social responsiblities in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Elsa Smithgall traces the acquisition and exhibition history of the Migration Series. Short commentaries on each panel explore Lawrence's career and technique, and the social history of the Migration. The catalogue also debuts ten poems commissioned from acclaimed poets that respond to the Migration Series. Elizabeth Alexander, honored as the poet at President Obama's first inauguration, introduces the section.