Retrospective

‘A Kaleidoscopic, Animated World’: A Review of Jacob Lawrence’s Early Work, From 1939

Jacob Lawrence, Panel 58 of "The Migration Series": "In the North the Negro had better educational facilities," 1940–41, casein tempera on hardboard. ©2015 THE JACOB AND GWENDOLYN KNIGHT FOUNDATION, SEATTLE/ ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/DIGITAL IMAGE ©THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/LICENSED BY  SCALA/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Jacob Lawrence, Panel 58 of ‘The Migration Series’: In the North the Negro had better educational facilities, 1940–41, casein tempera on hardboard.

ART: ©2015 THE JACOB AND GWENDOLYN KNIGHT FOUNDATION, SEATTLE/ ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; DIGITAL IMAGE: ©THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/LICENSED BY SCALA/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, only 23, made what would become his magnum opus—”The Migration Series,” a 60-work group of tempera paintings that chronicled life after the Great Migration, the movement of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North after World War I. The Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection quickly bought them up, and now, for the first time in 20 years, all 60 works are being shown together at MoMA. In honor of that show, titled “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works,” we turn back to a review by Jeannette Lowe of a show of Lawrence’s work at the American Artists School that predates “Migration” by two years. Published in the February 18, 1939 issue of ARTnews, the review appears below. It has been excerpted and does not include a review of Samuel Wechsler’s watercolors that ran with it. —Alex Greenberger

“The Negro Sympathetically Rendered by Lawrence; Wechsler”
By Jeannette Lowe

A fresh, vivid view of Negro life in New York may be seen in the tempera paintings of Jacob Lawrence, a graduate of the American Artists School where an exhibition of his work is now being held. A style which it is easy to call primitive marks his versions of ice peddlers, the subway, the park and restaurants, but closer inspection reveals draughtsmanship too accomplished to be called naïve. The bright colors in flat areas and the literal view of the world turn out to be just his manner of expressing his very sensitive reactions to a kaleidoscopic, animated world, in which his spirit is not to be downed by the oppression and neglect of his own people which he sees on all sides. They have little of the mournfulness of spirituals. Rather are they testimony of the unquenchable joie de vivre of the Negro, his inestimable gift to repressed, gloomy Nordics.

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