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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series (*short version*)

Jacob Lawrence's series of 60 paintings captures the African American migration from the South to the North. The paintings, split between The Phillips Collection and MoMA, depict the hopes, hardships, and racism experienced during this historical event. Lawrence's use of color, composition, and titling adds depth to the narrative. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and we're looking at a series of small paintings by Jacob Lawrence. - [Dr. Harris] This is actually a series of paintings. There are 60 of them. Half are here in The Phillips Collection. The other half are in the Museum of Modern Art. - [Dr. Zucker] Actually, MoMA has the even numbers and The Phillips has the odd numbers. And that was an arrangement that the artist agreed to because these were so sought after. - [Dr. Harris] He was young when he painted these, and so it's a remarkable achievement for a very young artist. - [Dr. Zucker] And they document one of the most important historical events in American history, the migration of African Americans from the agricultural South into the industrial North at the end of the 19th and especially in the first half of the 20th century. So what precipitated this was not only the extreme racism and Jim Crow Laws in the South, but also a dearth of labor in the North. That is, northern industrial companies had jobs to fill. - [Dr. Harris] Six million people are estimated to have moved during these waves of migrations. And Lawrence's family is one of them. - [Dr. Zucker] So people moved to New York just like Lawrence's family did, but people also moved to Chicago, to St. Louis, to Pittsburgh, to all these industrial centers. - [Dr. Harris] You have to imagine that life was really bad in the South for people to pick up, take all their belongings, move their families, and there must have been the hope of a much better life in the North. And I think there was in many cases, but there was also significant hardship-- - [Dr. Zucker] And racism in the North, as well. - [Dr. Harris] And the great thing about this series is that Lawrence captures the complexity of what happened to people's lives when they moves. - [Dr. Zucker] And he does that not only by this brilliant use of color and very stark composition using tempera on hard board, but he also does it through his titling, which is almost a kind of poem that weaves its way throughout these images. - [Dr. Harris] When we look at the paintings, we see geometric shapes, we see flat areas of color. And there's something spare about both the words and the images that's a big part of their power. - [Dr. Zucker] Well he was weirdly careful when he produced this. He had done a tremendous amount of research at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. This entire series really is about movement, it really is about change. The very first panel and the very last panel have to do with train stations and the movement of people. Let's take a look at this image. - [Dr. Harris] This is one of my favorites, because one really has a palpable sense of the effects of racism and discrimination. - [Dr. Zucker] We have this gold barrier. You have this rope that separates the people on the right from the people on the left in a spare field, which is upended. We're fusing linear perspective, giving us this exterior bird's eye view. - [Dr. Harris] That gray background is entirely flattened. The figures are silhouetted in these dark colors. There's a real sense of isolation between the figures. - [Dr. Zucker] Well the figures on the left, the whites, are really separate. The figure at the top left is facing away from the people on the other side of the barrier. - [Dr. Harris] And he looks rather haughty to me, in the way that he looks up and out. - [Dr. Zucker] And the man below him is clutching his newspaper, ignoring the place setting before him, and he seems to be completely lost in his own thoughts. But more than that, because of the size of his hands, he seems to be almost clutching that newspaper, defiantly refusing to acknowledge anybody else in his environment. - [Dr. Harris] There's a real economy to everything here in terms of the shapes and the lines, and yet there's so much expressiveness. - [Dr. Zucker] And because Lawrence makes the figure on the upper right so small, we get a real sense of distance and a sense of the isolation of that figure. Look at the way that the artist leads our eye from top to bottom. Our eye falls down with a kind of increasing momentum. And he brings us almost like a pinball machine back and forth, zigzagging, following the line of the barrier, but also alternating between the figures on either side of that barrier. - [Dr. Harris] And if we follow that barrier down all the way to the lower right, look how much we can tell about that figure from such economy of form. We can tell that this is a female figure, that she's older. Lawrence has painted her head lower than her shoulders, so she seems stooped over the table as she eats her food. - [Dr. Zucker] And the hat that she wears covers her so completely, her head is almost that of a bell. It's interesting that the white figures are the only people who have their facial features depicted. The African Americans are given form and personality really by the contours of their bodies. - [Dr. Harris] I feel so much more sympathy for the figures on the right, for the African American figures. Those figures on the left really do seem aloof and almost menacing. - [Dr. Zucker] What's fascinating is that Lawrence is bringing a visual vocabulary that is clearly well-versed in modernism to a subject that in the United States really is an expression of the modern condition of this modern migration of industrialization, of real upheaval. - [Dr. Harris] And by the vocabulary of modernism, you're referring to the flattness of the forms, the reductiveness that we see here. But we normally think about modernism as dispensing the subject matter with narrative. - [Dr. Zucker] And yet here, subject matter is beautifully woven into these stark images. (jazzy piano music)