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"Jacob Lawrence's Toussaint"
1999-12-19 until 2000-02-27
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH, 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


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