Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Jacob Lawrence: The Promised Land

The Cantor Arts Center currently has a fabulous exhibit of works by Jacob Lawrence, one of the most important artists of the 20th century, called "Promised Land."  Art collectors who were friends of the artist's have recently donated these works to the museum.

Lawrence used a style he called "dynamic cubism" featuring figures that have been flattened and stylized. Construction was one of his favorite themes.

Construction, 1952

Here is a street scene with embedded interiors, a very unique perspective. Lawrence's style seems simple, but he forces you to look deeply to get his meaning.

People in Other Rooms, 1975

For his design for a poster to advertise an exhibition of his work, Lawrence combined the theme of construction with a portrayal of ideal family life.

Poster Design…Whitney Exhibition, 1974

Lawrence was commissioned to illustrate the Book of Genesis in the King James Bible. The actual folio is in the show.

Lawrence's illustrated version of Genesis

In his illustrations, Lawrence used the perspective of a child hearing a sermon. The preacher tries to dramatize the actions God took during the creation. The events he describes are shown through the church windows.

3. And God said—Let the Earth bring forth the grass, trees, fruits, and herbs.

4. And God created the day and the night
and God created and put stars in the sky.
A child hears all these stories within a community that assumes they are all true.

6. And God created all the beasts of the earth.

The artist also illustrated the Legend of John Brown. John Brown was a white abolitionist who lived before the Civil War. Lawrence showed that he had tried to earn a living as a surveyor, but all his ventures failed. After he accepted poverty, he devoted himself to the cause of abolishing slavery. He organized the free black men of the Adirondack Mountains in New York to help protect any escaped slaves coming through there.

John Brown formed an organization among the colored people
of the Adirondack woods to resist the capture of any fugitive slaves.

Lawrence's illustrations are wonderfully abstract, using minimal means to maximum effect. In this illustration of escaping slaves, the color scheme suggests that many escapes were in winter, and blue expresses the freedom they sought. The escaped slaves crept by stealthily, leaving only foot prints and blood stains.

16. In spite of a price on his head, John Brown
liberated twelve negroes from a Missouri plantation in 1859.

John Brown's most infamous action was to lead an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Kansas. The artist showed only the bayonets of the men's rifles rising over a hill. He used minimal means to evoke a charged atmosphere.

19. John Brown with a company of 21 men,
white and black, marched on Harpers Ferry.

In his depiction of the clash, you can't tell the combatants apart. All are wearing ammo belts, except the figure on the left, who may be John Brown, bearing a sword like a cross.

20. John Brown held Harpers Ferry for 12 hours.
His defeat was a few hours off.

John Brown was a martyr to his faith and his cause.

21. After John Brown's capture, he was put on trial
for his life in Charles Town Virginia (now West Virginia).

Nowadays, Brown and his followers would be called terrorists because they used violence to promote their cause. The last illustration in the series is a masterpiece of simplified but moving composition.

22. John Brown was found guilty of treason
and hanged in Charles Town in 1859

In the image below, Lawrence interpreted bull-fighting from a black perspective. If black men imagine themselves as toreadors, they see the beast as white and vicious. This may be Lawrence's most direct condemnation of racism.

Dreams No. 3: Toreador, 1966

Late in his career Lawrence painted a picture of a happy artist at work. His style still uses tenets of cubism, but has become even looser and more minimal. On the wall is a print of a painting of Venice, showing that he is inspired by the old masters. On the easel the artist is combining the images that he used for "People in Other Rooms," which is shown above, thus identifying the artist as himself.

Artist in Studio, 1994

This exhibit raised my estimate of Jacob Lawrence from minor artist to major genius. His ability to combine words and images to illustrate a long story seems unsurpassed to me, and his symbolic images also tell moving stories. What raises his work above the norm is the way he uses aesthetic values like cubism and unconventional coloration to add mystery to his compositions, so that his meaning is not obvious right away, forcing the viewer to think about the significance of each element.   And he didn't waste any paint on mere prettiness; he always had something to say.