One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art through September 7, 2015. The exhibition showcases Jacob Lawrence’s 60 tempera paintings documenting the history and experiences of the Great Migration, the mass movement of Black Americans from the rural South to the urban North starting around 1915. Curatorial assistant (and former MUSE intern!) Jodi Roberts led MUSE on a special tour of the exhibit.
Originally conceived as a single entity, Lawrence’s series of paintings was eventually divided in half and sold to the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. This exhibition is the first time the series has been shown in its entirety in 20 years.
Around 6 million Black Americans, in search of better social and living conditions and industrial work, migrated from the South to the North in the beginning of the 20th Century until the 1970s. Migration became a major theme in poetry and music, and Jacob Lawrence sought to visually express the history and experience of this Great Migration through painting.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Harlem from early adolescence, Jacob Lawrence was the son of Southern migrants from Virginia and North Carolina. Lawrence himself, however, had not even visited the South by the time he finished his Migration Series. In preparation for the series, he spent months gathering oral histories of those who migrated from the South and researched black history and culture at the 135th Street Branch Library, now called the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Lawrence was also influenced by the work of WPA (Works Progress Administration) photojournalists who were including captions with their images, as evidenced by his inclusion of a single line of text below each painting.
That the series be cohesive and unified was evident in his process. No single individual and no single painting could be representative of the Great Migration experience. Lawrence’s focus was on the collective experience and the series was treated as a unified artwork. He painted the entire collection at the same time on the floor of his studio, applying poster paint, one color at a time. He did not mix the colors. This decision was both economical and a way to unify the series through repetition of color.
Far from becoming lost during the migration northward, Black Southern culture was preserved, revived, and reinvented in the migrants’ new home in the North, most famously in Harlem’s Second Renaissance. The thriving arts, literature and music community of Harlem was vital to Jacob Lawrence’s artistic development.
With his friend and fellow artist, Southerner Romare Bearden, Lawrence joined a small group of artists and writers in the 1930s. They called themselves the “306 Group,” named after WPA muralist Charles Alston’s studio address on West 141st Street. This group also included Langston Hughes, Norman Lewis, and Augusta Savage. The 306 Group became a salon for ideas and culture, where they embraced modernist aesthetics and racial solidarity. It was also at the 306 Group meetings that Lawrence met his wife, painter Gwendolyn Knight.
To give viewers a sense of Jacob Lawrence’s artistic genealogy and community, the exhibition has two “bookend” galleries and a listening room to contextualize Jacob Lawrence’s world and his art. There is rare video footage of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” (1939) and opera singer Marian Anderson performing in front of the Lincoln Memorial for 75,000 people (1939), after being denied a stage by the Daughters of the American Revolution at Constitution Hall for being a Black performer. There are also archival photographs from WPA-commissioned photojournalists, including Dorothea Lange, that document rural America and consequently, the lives of many African Americans living in poverty in the segregated South.
Bringing the Migration Series together in its entirely presented MoMA with an opportunity to create a first-rate interactive digital site. This can be found on Moma’s interactive website for One Way Ticket.
The Jacob Lawrence link includes a chronology of Jacob Lawrence's life with images and photos and interviews with Jacob Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight.
The Perspectives link includes interviews with cultural and scholarly leaders about Harlem’s art scene in the 1930s and 1940s and the lasting legacy of the Migration Series. There are also poems and readings by ten poets who contributed to the Migration Series Poetry Suite.
Infographics and a timeline are presented in Visualizing the Great Migration to give you a sense of the number of migrants throughout the years and the Great Migration's lasting effect on the country's social landscape.
And finally, the Harlem Walking Tour is a self-guided audio tour of the places and artworks that inspired a young Jacob Lawrence.
This tour can be downloaded onto iTunes and taken with you as you explore 1930s Harlem.
Event related to One Way Ticket that might be of interest:
Monday, July 13, 2015 – 6:30pm
Shaping Lawrence: Mixing Civic Influence and Cultural Access
Conversation about the intersection of Jacob Lawrence’s work with civil rights organizations and cultural institutions, to portray and address social inequalities in the 20th and 21st century. This event is free and open to the public.
All Jacob Lawrence Migration Series images are courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.