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Jacob Lawrence’s “Struggle...from the History of the American People”

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Seattle Art Museum opens March 5

Following our catastrophic Capitol riot, what could be more timely than Jacob Lawrence’s series on Struggle. Ironically, the art works remind us that those insurrectionist “Minutemen” mimic the militias of the early days of the American revolution and are also trying to overturn a government. I don’t have space here to expand on this comparison which can be another essay.

Jacob Lawrence’s “Struggle...from the History of the American People” (1954–56) is a 30-panel series on exhibit through May 23. The Seattle Art Museum is reopening starting on Friday March 5 (Fridays through Sundays, 10am–5pm), purchase a timed ticket online:

The artist began this historical series in the same year as the Brown vs Board of Education 1954 desegregation ruling. Although it ends with a reference to the movement West (focusing on overburdened oxen, certainly as a metaphor), he planned to create twice as many works.

Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight spent the last thirty years of their lives here; they are part of the history of our city. They moved to Seattle, Washington in 1971 where he was an influential professor at the University of Washington. They lived in a small house near the University with a studio upstairs, a location that only two years earlier had been declared legal for African Americans.

His most prominent work in his early years in Seattle is the stupendous Kingdome mural Games of 1978 that hangs in the Convention Center. Comprised of ten connected steel panels it celebrates huge-limbed sports players of many racial mixes in the foreground and their cheering fans surrounding them. Lawrence uses scale to highlight the drama while also subtly foregrounding integration in sports as another milestone of change. The Games mural builds on many representations of games in Lawrence’s career.

In contrast to Games, the earlier Struggle . . . from the History of the American People is on the same small scale as his well-known Migration Series from 1940–41. The title is crucial, it is not a Black history but an American history. Also striking is the emphasis on compressed space, sharply angular figures that reinforce the idea of conflict, as well as a subtle, but dramatic use of color.

Most important, though is the emphasis on the impact of history on the ordinary person. For example, in the famous subject of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” we see the soldiers in small boats that accompanied the “great man” and quotes from a letter by Washington’s slave Tench Tilghman “We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton…the night was excessively severe … which the men bore without the least murmur.” In the Battle of New Orleans, fought by Andrew Jackson after the peace treaty was signed with the British in 1815, Lawrence features piles of dead on both sides, emphasizing the meaninglessness of war.

Each one of these images is a radical imagining of what Lawrence describes as “the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.”

Although he did not continue with the series, he continued with the topic. Ten years later, Struggle II, Man on Horseback, 1965, depicts a brutal attack during the Civil Rights movement: a baton-wielding police officer rides on a horse with bloody feet that stomps on protestors. The electric energy of the black and white line highlighted with red dramatizes the violence. Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, depicts Civil Rights marchers from Selma to Birmingham, led by Martin Luther King, brutally turned back by the police. We are all particularly familiar with this event now, as John Lewis was at the forefront of the march with King.

Lawrence has created many series based on American history including Toussaint L’Ouverture,1938, Frederick Douglass, 1939, Harriet Tubman, 1940, and John Brown 1941. His fifth and most famous series, The Migration of the Negro, 1941 concisely represented the economic and social forces that led thousands of ordinary people to migrate from South to North in the early twentieth century.

Soon after his arrival in Seattle he was invited to create a new historical series on the story of George Washington Bush, African American pioneer. The five panels (originally intended to be larger works) detail the pioneering trek West by the wealthy Missouri farmer who funded six wagons on the Oregon Trail. The dominant image conveys the swirling river waters of the Continental Divide. An entirely new subject for Lawrence, the energy and complexity of the panels is an example of his willingness to transform his style in response to the demands of the subject.

Throughout his life Jacob Lawrence constantly embraced new subjects, new challenges, and new circumstances. He elevated the excruciating struggles of African Americans to heroism and highlighted the stories of resistance and sacrifice by all the people under the yoke of the large forces of oppression in American history.

In addition to the Jacob Lawrence series this exhibition also includes new work by Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas that “reinforce the timeliness of Struggle by engaging themes such as democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion.”

Leave enough time to see Barbara Earl Thomas’s stunning installation “The Geography of Innocence.”

Last, the Ray Troll show “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” has opened at the Burke. Easy to get a reservation.

~Susan Noyes Platt


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