BIRMINGHAM, ALA.- The Birmingham Museum of Art
is presenting Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, a striking exhibition of paintings by the iconic American modernist, Jacob Lawrence. Struggle comes to Birmingham directly from its presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Featuring the series of paintings Struggle. . . From the History of the American People (195456), the exhibition presents the artists reinterpretation and reimagining of key moments from the early history of the United States.
"Jacob Lawrence has a long history with the Birmingham Museum of Art. We hosted his retrospective in 1974, and exhibited his Migration Series to widespread acclaim in 1994. Those who remember the 1994 exhibition shared with me how popular it was and how much it resonated within our community, says Graham C. Boettcher, PhD, R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art. When we were offered the chance to be one of five venues nationally to host The American Struggle, we leapt at the opportunity. Twenty-six years after Lawrence's last exhibition at the BMA, it's time to share his powerful work with the next generation. At a time when we need art most, thanks to the generous support of the City of Birmingham and our presenting sponsors Alabama Power and Vulcan Materials, we are pleased to offer this experience to the public free of charge."
One of the greatest narrative artists of the twentieth century, Jacob Lawrence (19172000) painted his Struggle series to show how women and people of color helped shape the founding of our nation. Originally conceived as a series of sixty paintings, spanning subjects from the American Revolution to World War I, Struggle was intended to depict, in the artist's words, "the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy." These works represent familiar and unfamiliar historical moments from 1775 to 1817 ranging from politician Patrick Henrys famous speech with the line, give me liberty or give me death!, to the migration of Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River called westward expansion. Most panels are accompanied by quotations from historical texts, which the artist drew from research conducted at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In his ambitious portrayal of these episodes, Lawrence revises the myths of American history, says Katelyn D. Crawford, PhD, The William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art. He focuses on the contributions of Black people in America, making visible a history which was often erased by white writers. Lawrence paints these episodes with vibrant colors and fragmented forms that compress space and bring his viewer into these vital, violent moments in the early history of the United States.
As a socially engaged painter embraced by politically left critics, Lawrence lived and worked under FBI surveillance. He created the Struggle series against the backdrop of Senator Joseph McCarthys House Un-American Activities Committee, which targeted Black intellectuals and artists to a significant degree. Moreover, as he started to paint in May 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling called for the desegregation of public schools, catalyzing the Civil Rights Movement.
Lawrence planned to publish his ambitious project in book form. In the end, he completed thirty panels representing historical moments from 1775 through 1817. The 12- x 16-inch panels that comprise Struggle feature the words and actions of not only early American politicians but also of enslaved people, women, and Native Americans, to address the diverse but mutually linked fortunes of all American constituencies engaged in the struggle. Taken as a whole, this remarkable series of paintings interprets and expresses the democratic debates that defined early America and still resonate today.