Jacob Lawrence was only 23-years-old when he created the “Migration Series” in 1941, a group of 60 paintings relaying the story of the Great Migration, the mass exodus of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrialized Northeast and Midwest in search of economic opportunity early in the 20th century. The full series can now be seen in One Way Ticket, a compelling exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Lawrence, who was raised in Harlem, heard firsthand accounts of the Great Migration from his parents, Rosa Lee, a domestic worker from Virginia, and Jacob, a railroad cook from South Carolina. In 1940, the young painter received a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation that gave awards to African-Americans in the arts. Lawrence used the prize money to rent a studio large enough to hang all 60 wooden panels side by side.
After thoroughly researching the Great Migration at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, Lawrence made preparatory captioned drawings. The captions, which are included in the exhibition, are journalistic in style, direct and factual without emotion or opinion.
Lawrence worked on all 60 paintings simultaneously. He transferred his drawings to panels and, using inexpensive tempera paint, applied one color to the entire series at a time, starting with dark hues and progressing to lighter colors. Working this way, he was able to create a unified palette that ties the 60 works together visually.
In “Panel 3,” a group carries their belongings in whatever containers they could find—suitcases, boxes and sacks thrown over their shoulders. The figures, simplified into faceless silhouettes, form a triangle on the panel. Above them, blackbirds fly north. Here the illusion of depth is created with overlapping flat shapes.
A stark image of a rope hanging from a branch in “Panel 15” alludes to a lynching. A lone figure, crouching on the ground, seems to mourn. The figure and the branch are set against a light blue sky. This panel, with the lightest color palette in the series, depicts one of the darkest scenes.
African-Americans who remained in the South sometimes received letters from family and friends telling them of their new lives. In “Panel 33,” a woman lying in bed beneath an enormous green blanket reads a letter on blue stationery as a child kneeling beside her listens. The viewpoint in this picture is from above and behind the woman’s head. The mattress widens as it recedes in space, a reverse perspective that creates a trapezoid shape. Bright yellow stripes, perhaps the metal bed frame, extend to the panel’s top edge. The captivating geometry in this painting focuses the viewer’s attention on the tilted blue letter, encouraging the viewer’s consideration of the correspondence.
The Migration Series was an enormous critical success when it was first exhibited in 1941 at Edith Halpert’s downtown New York gallery. Both the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington wanted to purchase the works. Ultimately the museums agreed to each acquire half the panels.
It has been 20 years since the full series was last brought together and the reunited paintings will next travel to the Phillips in September 2016.
These panels, with much to offer visually, are also thought-provoking in light of current events. Some of the scenes are eerily similar to recent television news stories, reminding viewers that the struggle for equality and justice continues today.
One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, through September 7th, 2015, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, New York, 212-708-9400, www.moma.org