Lawrence's paintings narrate history

November 22, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

JACOB Lawrence's 31 paintings on the life of Harriet Tubman form an essay of images which belong to the oppressed: chains and solitary flowers, figures huddling in sorrow and strength, dances of madness and of giddy joy.

The 1940 narrative series, on display next Tuesday (Nov. 26) at the Baltimore Museum of Art, follows the dramatic arc of Tubman's life from the physical suffering she endured as slave to her tender nursing of Union soldiers. It is a richly simple document of the long journey to freedom.

Considered one of the finest American artists of this century -- he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bush last year -- Lawrence completed the Tubman series and the related series on abolitionist Frederick Douglass while he was still an art student.

"I look at those series and think they are among the most successful works in my life," he said recently in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. "I wonder today how I managed to do them, how I managed to have that wisdom at that age. I could never repeat that -- because you can't repeat yourself -- but I feel real good about them."

He says that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were legendary figures to the artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, anartistic movement of the 1920s which thrived upon racial pride.

Lawrence moved to Harlem with his mother and siblings in 1930 and spent his teen-age years absorbing the community's rich cultural influences. He credits that period of his life with building his sense of heritage.

"It was the Great Depression, but the Harlem community wasn't poor in spirit. There were street corner artists always discussing the issues of the day: the value of communism, of Marcus Garvey's Going Back to Africa movement . . . There was the theater and the vaudeville, the comedians and the Big Bands. There were all those colors and textures, moving back and forth from the street to the theater.

"You didn't have to think about culture, it was all around you. Now there's a great effort to get young people involved with culture. I don't remember that effort taking place back then. Back then, it just happened."

He received his early training in the Harlem Art Workshops which were funded by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. Mixing with some of the greatest black artists of the time -- painter Aaron Douglas, writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay and philosopher Alain Locke -- Lawrence began working on his narrative series while he was still a student at the American Artists School.

By the age of 30, he had created several groups of paintings based upon the history of blacks in America, series which considered the life of John Brown and the northward migration of former slaves. The success of this work led the artist to early fame, including an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944.

"I couldn't tell any of these stories in one painting," he says. "Had nothing happened to them [the series] I would have been just as pleased. It was something I got out of my system and it was exciting for me to do."

During the next 45 years, Lawrence established himself as a representational painter with a passionate social mission. His career has encompassed a variety of narrative series ranging from his first series of paintings about the life of Toussaint L'Overture, the Haitian slave who founded the West's first black republic, to a 1990 series based upon the book of Genesis.

"I would say my work is like a single strand; there's no great change in form or style," he says. "But I would like to think that my work now has another kind of a depth that I didn't have when I began."

He finished the Harriet Tubman series the year he turned 23. At that point he was driven by the mission to make black Americans aware of their history -- and their possibilities.

"We don't have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery," he said in a biographical sketch for the Harmon Foundation. "If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing."

Lawrence's powerful, rough images of Douglass and Tubman have also instructed those who equate heroism with conventional standards of physical beauty. Press accounts mention a New England librarian who protested in 1968 that Lawrence's illustrations for a children's book on Harriet Tubman made the abolitionist appear too grotesque and ugly.

"If you had walked in the fields, stopping for short periods to be replenished by Underground stations; if you couldn't feel secure until you reached the Canadian border, you too, madam, would look grotesque and ugly," he responded to her complaint.

"Isn't it sad that the oppressed often find themselves grotesque and ugly and find the oppressor refined and beautiful?"

The poignancy of his work, and his observations, have lost none of their currency.

"Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of Narrative Paintings" runs Nov. 26-Feb. 23 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show of 63 paintings, on loan from Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Va., has already visited museums in New York, Philadelphia and Rochester and will travel to Wilmington, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

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