Jacob Lawrence and the dynamic cubism
Updated: Aug 30, 2019
September 7th, 1917, marks the birthday of Jacob Lawrence, one of the most important American figurative artists of the 20th century. In 1937, at the age of 20, Lawrence received a scholarship to attend the American Artists School in New York and the same year distinguished himself from the numerous young artists of the time by creating the famous "Toussant L'Ouverture" (1937), a 41-panel series depicting the Haitian slave uprising.
The Haitian series started what was later considered his signature genre: multi-panel series narrating the most important chapters of African American history. Lawrence was famous for social realism and educational approach to art. He was the key artist in the closing years of the Harlem Renaissance movement, a movement to which he gave a new life, carrying its values into the post-war period. At present, we mostly remember him for his oil paintings, executed with bright colors and demonstrating expressive forms in dynamic, rhythmical compositions, but Lawrence worked with smaller media as well. One of the better known examples is a series of drawings illustrating the 1949 edition of the “One-Way Ticket”, a collection of poems by Langston Hughes, partially inspired by the Harlem riots of 1943 and the story of Margie Polite.
Lawrence’ black and white prints, in their pure, simple forms, demonstrate his unique approach to cubism, a style in which he searched for the aesthetics of Harlem and the African American cultural roots, while at the same time limiting the direct influences of the French masters. Lawrence himself called this style the “dynamic cubism” – that way distinguishing it from the “classical” cubism developed by Braque and Picasso.
Recently, while working on a series of objects from the marvelous collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I had a chance to perform a conservation treatment of one of Jacob Lawrence original drawings. Lawrence drawing will be only one of the many fascinating works of art and important archival materials available to public in the NMAAHC, since its Grand Opening on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 – which should making an autumn visit to the museum even more compelling.
(!) When planning to visit the NMAAHC, due to the high demand, please check for the free passes beforehand at the Museum website: https://nmaahc.si.edu/
Much more information about Jacob Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance can be found in: Peter Nesbett and Michelle Dubois (Editors), Over the Line: The Life and Art of Jacob Lawrence, University of Washington Press, 2002.
About Margie Polite, the Harlem Riot and its cultural traces: George Bornstein, New Negroes and Lost Connections: Re-viewing the texts, Michigan Quarterly Review, XLV/4, 2006.
Illustration: Jacob Lawrence, The Ballad of Margie Polite, 1949 (printed version, "One-Way Ticket" 1949, after PC09-2012)