It's incredibly difficult to make successful art that is also socially and politically engaged. Almost inevitably, the desire to present a message overwhelms artistic considerations and the image becomes merely an illustration for a political agenda, or worse. Remember Judy Chicago's female-genitalia-inspired Dinner Party? Or how about the Soviet Socialist Realist images of happy and heroic tractor drivers?
Jacob Lawrence was the exception to the rule, as evidenced by his nearly 200 works on view in "Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence" at the Museum of Fine Arts. His images of tenements, subways or the empty noose of a lynch mob convey the emotional message of the scenes but with a visual syntax that stresses abstracted form, pattern and composition. Using boldly and flatly painted areas of color, Lawrence created dynamic works in which people, buildings, sky and water are all shapes -- his world feels like a gargantuan interlocking puzzle.
Artistically, Lawrence was formed in the crucible of black urban poverty, galvanized by the Harlem Renaissance and shaped by the socially concerned zeitgeist of the Roosevelt era. He was trained in the black community by the black community, in part through a government-sponsored WPA arts program -- the product of a government-supported arts system that is unimaginable in today's political climate. Through his early experiences, Lawrence's social concern and humanism were forever melded with his formidable artistic talents.
In 1930, when Lawrence was 13, he started making art in the crafts classes taught by Charles Alston at the Utopia Children's Center in Harlem. His early materials of poster paint on brown paper determined the kind of media he would use throughout his career. Aside from a brief and unsatisfactory dalliance with the smeary viscosity of oil paint, he stuck with casein, gouache and egg tempera, materials that shared the same matter-of-fact matte quality. Their quick-drying, chalky nature lends to solid shapes; painting with them demands a dogged "filling in" of color that contributes to the structural feeling of Lawrence's work.
Lawrence created his most famous series, The Migration of the Negro (1941), when he was only 23. Chronicling the mass movement of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrial cities of the North, it consists of 60 panels, painted all at once and with the same palette, so the series feels visually cohesive. Adding brief bits of text to his well-chosen and strikingly composed images, Lawrence provides an illustrated history that doesn't look like one. No. 16 shows the backs of three men against the vertical lines of prison bars. Through their handcuffed arms, Lawrence creates a visually rhythmic "V" pattern while showing the linked plight of black men "arrested at the slightest provocation."
The son of a working single mother, Lawrence was especially attuned to the plight of black women. Ironers (1943) shows three women, their angular arms wielding massive block-like irons as they labor for family, a white employer and a garment factory, respectively. The visual weight of their work is juxtaposed with the dynamic colors and linear patterns of the image. In No. 7, from Harriet in the Promised Land, a series depicting the life of Harriet Tubman, Tubman is depicted kneeling with her head bowed and her exaggerated hand scrubbing the vertical lines of the floorboards. It's a forceful composition of strength and toil.
Lawrence also gives us physical depictions of segregation in the form of boldly bisected picture planes. In No. 49 from his Migration of the Negro series, he shows black diners and white diners in the North, their tables and the painting's surface halved by a zigzagging dividing rope -- social reality meets compositional device. In Bus (1941), rectangular bus windows reveal whites sitting comfortably in the front and blacks crowded into the back, with rows of empty seats in between. The patterns of wrought iron in the background tell us this scene was taken from New Orleans.
In Slums (1950) the accoutrements of poverty are center stage and the victims become the backdrop. On the sill of the window that fills the page rests a dead mouse in a trap and a tin can whose reflective surface Lawrence has elaborately abstracted. A pattern of cockroaches and flies decorate the frame. Beyond the window lie the vibrantly colored and skewed grids of tenements, their residents simply more shapes in the milieu. A broken teal green shade functions as theater curtain for the visual cacophony of the human condition.
Lawrence maintained his humanistic focus throughout his long career. In 1983, when he was asked by the Limited Editions Club of New York to illustrate a book, he selected, from numerous titles, John Hershey's Hiroshima, a 1947 text with first-hand accounts from survivors of the blast. Lawrence depicts the stories of daily life cruelly interrupted through figures whose faces are a combination of white skull, red blood and ocher flesh. They sit calmly, caught unawares on a park bench or at the dinner table, as death and horror wash over them. The images are not macabre; they are too abstracted for cheap gore. Rather, they depict a stark and straightforward kind of horror. Inescapable and overwhelming events are locked into the bright patterns and shapes of ordinary activity.
Through his art, Lawrence gives us visual pleasure cut by reality -- harsh, joyful and bittersweet. He continued to successfully develop his work throughout his 70-year career, all the while maintaining his sensitivity to life and the lives of others. Not many people can maintain their art-making for that long, let alone their empathy.
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