Published: September 19, 2006
The Allentown Art Museum will present the special exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: Tales of Freedom” October 8–January 7 in the Rodale Gallery. An opening party will take place October 12 from 6 to 8 pm.
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) is among the most acclaimed African American artists, and the exhibition consists of eight prints from his “Toussaint L’Ouverture” series, 22 prints from the “John Brown” series and one print, “Revolt on the Amistad.” In addition to regular museum admission, admission to “Jacob Lawrence” is $5, which includes admission to another special exhibition, “Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931–1945.”
While typically identified with Harlem, Lawrence lived five years of his childhood in Easton, Penn., and 25 years near Seattle, where he taught at the University of Washington. Over a career spanning seven decades, Lawrence exhibited his work at prestigious museums and galleries, and earned critical approbation and numerous honorary doctorates and national awards. Lawrence’s early successes include exhibiting at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, which was the leading New York gallery of American modernism; having his work published in Fortune magazine; and selling his “Migration of the Negro” series to the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Lawrence painted in a vibrant style of flat planes of color that evoked the stylistic concerns of Cubists, but never abandoned recognizable figures, landscapes and forms. Many of his paintings were conceived in narrative sequences that explored the African American experience. His series told the stories of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and the “History of the American People.” When Lawrence departed from narrative sequences, he often returned to favorite themes, including work, migration, jazz, literacy, mental illness and the struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
The dramatic images featured in this exhibition were conceived in the midst of World War II (in which the artist served as a member of the Coast Guard) and capture Lawrence’s reflections on two signature struggles for freedom by people of the African diaspora. The “Toussaint L’Ouverture” series was painted in 1938 and Lawrence later developed the paintings into a collection of 15 prints (1986–1997).
Toussaint L’Ouverture was a Haitian general who led his people to independence from the French government that had colonized the island in the Eighteenth Century. Despite being arrested and imprisoned in Paris in 1802, Touissant’s efforts eventually resulted in the establishment of the first black republic in 1804.
The John Brown series was painted in 1941. It depicts the transformation of Brown from a land surveyor into a messianic leader of the abolitionist movement in the years leading up to the Civil War. Brown organized black and white troops in uprisings in Kansas and in his last stand at Harper’s Ferry, conflicts that catalyzed the Civil War. Lawrence pays tribute to Brown’s religious zeal by portraying him as a Christian martyr. A poem, by Robert Hayden, published with the prints echoes this theme, describing Brown “Doing the Lord’s work with saber / sharpened on the grindstone / of the Word.”
Lawrence’s paintings of John Brown were purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The paintings became too fragile to travel, so the DIA commissioned Lawrence to publish them in an edition of 60 screenprint sets.
Artwork in this exhibition has been lent by Evelyn Boulware and DC Moore Gallery, New York City. The museum is at 31 North Fifth Street. For information, www.allentownartmuseum.org or 610-432-4333, ext 10.
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