Indepth Arts News: |
"Jacob Lawrence's Toussaint"
1999-12-19 until 2000-02-27
Cleveland Museum of Art
USA United States of America
In 1941, at the age of 24, Jacob Lawrence became the first African-American artist
to have a work in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. His
distinguished career, now spanning seven decades, has been devoted to documenting
African-American life and history. He depicts everyday scenes--the demeaning
details of slum life, the raucous vitality of city streets--as well as the universal struggle
for freedom, social justice, and human dignity.
Lawrence, who moved to Harlem as a teenager in 1930, was influenced and
stimulated by the artists, writers, and philosophers of the Harlem Renaissance, among
them Romare Bearden, Langston Hughes, and W. E. B. DuBois, who fostered pride
in African-American culture. In order to explore the Black experience in America,
Lawrence turned to history, creating a series of small paintings on paper illustrating a
narrative of crucial events. His subjects include legendary heroes like Frederick
Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, all of whom fought to abolish slavery,
and the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized,
urban North, seeking opportunity during the early decades of the century.
Between 1986 and 1997 Lawrence executed 15 screenprints based on 41 paintings
made in 1937-38 to recount the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Born a slave,
Toussaint emerged as a leader of the Haitian slave rebellion (1791-1804) that freed
his country from nearly 300 years of European rule. In 1492 Columbus had claimed
the West Indian island of Hispaniola or Little Spain, which the native population
called Haiti, Land of Mountains. By the late 1600s, the island was divided between
the Spanish and the French, who named their portions Santo Domingo and
Saint-Domingue, respectively. Five hundred
thousand captured Africans, imported to
work as slaves on plantations growing
sugar, coffee, and cotton, were treated
brutally. The Toussaint L'Ouverture print
series focuses on the Haitian leader's valiant
efforts to defeat the European forces and
achieve independence for his people.
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, not wanting
to lose his wealthiest colony, sent a fleet to
Haiti and restored slavery. The entire native
population, led by Jean-Jacques
Dessalines, mobilized to fiercely resist.
Lacking adequate supplies, after the deaths
of many soldiers from yellow fever and
other tropical diseases, the French finally
withdrew in November 1803. A
declaration of independence was published
on January 1, 1804, establishing Haiti as
the first black republic in the West.
The impassioned imagery of Toussaint L'Ouverture reflects Lawrence's motivation
for the project. Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the
rest of the world, explained the artist in 1940. I don't see how a history of the
United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn't do it just
as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today.
We don't have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who
were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we
certainly can do the same thing.
Lawrence expresses his social and political agenda in a modernist style of simplified,
flat, brightly colored forms. In a limited palette of bold colors, crisp silhouettes in
dramatic poses create a tight interlocking pattern. Forgoing naturalism for this
powerful, direct style, Lawrence commented, If at times my productions do not
express the conventionally beautiful, there is always an effort to express the universal
beauty of man's continuous struggle to lift his social position and to add dimension to
his spiritual being.
Jane Glaubinger, Curator of Prints