To mark the 100 year anniversary of The Great Migration, the Museum of Modern Art is mounting an extensive exhibit of artist Jacob Lawrence's 60-painting series, The Great Migration, beginning in April 3. The various panels, painted in 1940 and 1941 by a 23-year-old Lawrence, depict Southern blacks' move to the North.
The MoMA's press release details how the painter researched the project:
Before beginning to paint the Migration Series, Lawrence spent months at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) studying historical documents, books, photographs and journals, and other printed matter. The resulting work moved between scenes of terror and violence and scenes of great intimacy, and gave the visual arts a radically new vision of contemporary black experience. Within months of its completion, the series entered the collections of The Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (today The Phillips Collection), with each institution acquiring half of the panels.
This exhibit, One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, will be the first time in 20 years that the paintings have been brought together. And from the NY Times:
Lawrence called the small pictures, in tempera on hardboard panels, “The Migration of the Negro,” giving each a short caption. A Modernist series with repeated images of trains, naked trees, flames, labor agents and fleeing silhouetted figures, it was intended to be exhibited together, but seldom is.
“For our audience, it has been 20 years, so a real generation in audience terms, since they have been here to see this,” Leah Dickerman, the curator of the exhibition, said of the unified series. The show’s animating idea, she said, is to highlight the social and artistic context in which the 23-year-old Lawrence, a Harlem resident, emerged. His work is “ground zero for history writing in visual form,” she said.
The Times adds, "To put Lawrence’s work in historical perspective, MoMA will showcase the work of contemporaries who interpreted the migration, including Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange, as well as painters like Romare Bearden and Charles White."
The MoMA is commissioning other works—artwork, poetry and film—and putting together a program of panel discussions, menus (from Marcus Samuelsson, Abram Bissell and Dan Jackson) and musical performances aligned with the Great Migration. More details will be announced in the new year.
Some essential reading might be Isabel Wilkerson's acclaimed book, The Warmth of Other Suns. The New Yorker wrote, "Narrative nonfiction is risky; it has to be grabby, telling, and true... [A] deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book…. Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of."