This special exhibition is on view between January 18, 2020 to April 26, 2020. After the Salem show closes, the exhibition will move to other American cities. This groundbreaking art event features thirty panels produced by Jacob Lawrence, the most well-known African American artist of the twentieth century. These panels have not been together in sixty years, when they were first exhibited by a gallery wishing to sell them as a set. The gallery was unsuccessful in finding a home for all of the panels, and they were dispersed over time. Bringing them together again is a monumental achievement.
This major exhibit is supported by the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States) and major charitable organizations.
After this exhibit closes it will move to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art between June 2 and September 7, 2020, and then to the Birmingham Museum of Art from October 17, 2020 to January 10, 2021, the Seattle Art Museum from February 11 to May 23, 2021, and finally to the Phillips Collection from June 26 to September 19, 2021.
Jacob Lawrence happens to be my favorite artist of all time, so I headed to the show with great anticipation. I feature posters of his art in my university office, and I had attended the exhibition of Lawrence’s migration series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City a few years prior. I write about the history of the great migration of African Americans from the American South to the urban North during the twentieth century, which is a historical movement that also captivates Jacob Lawrence. The visit also fell on my birthday, and I found the visit a fitting way to celebrate the milestone.
The visit surpassed my dreams for it and I found it a very successful museum show. The Peabody Essex Museum may be my favorite museum. It recently underwent a major renovation. Luckily the renovation did not change the inviting quality of this special museum. The PEM even smells good, like history itself if it had a smell, except not dusty.
Lawrence is one of the few American painters to typically paint in series. He is a historical painter, and his paintings work together as if they are a book rather than a set of individual paintings. Lawrence launched his study for the series at the New York Public Library, initially thinking that he would produce a series of paintings on African American history. He widened the scope of the series to embrace all of American history. He had meant to produce sixty works and ended up with only thirty. He may have cut off the project due to its inability to sell. It also took Lawrence some time to move from his research phase to the painting phase in this project. Lawrence suffered from depression and confronting the troubled American past may have exacerbated these feelings. Because the US is facing its history and rocky present, Lawrence’s exhibit could not have come to fruition at a better time. Lawrence allows us to think critically about the building of the American nation and issues the United States continues to confront.
Before I entered the exhibit I did not know Lawrence would comment on American history so broadly. The breadth of the work was an interesting and pleasant surprise. With Lawrence the captions are as important as the art work, and they have to be read carefully. The rhythm of the captions and their sparseness results in the viewer taking in a history of the United States written in a very accessible way. Viewers of these complete works are struck, as certainly Lawrence himself was, by how the American past can be marked by a series of struggles.
Students at the University of Virginia assisted with the research that was used to construct the exhibit. One can feel the care that went into laying out the gallery for this show. One enters through a lavishly colored doorway and heavy glass doors. Then one joins an orderly procession of visitors to look at the paintings chronologically. Of course one can also go against the crowds and bounce through American history in an asynchronous way.
The individual paintings are arrayed in linear fashion around the room, connected by stripes of color that match Lawrence’s own pallet. Viewers are given points of reflection throughout the exhibit, as well as several opportunities to offer feedback. This made the exhibit feel interactive and current.
Lawrence’s paintings are small and one is able to take in on a personal level. One must approach them carefully to fully take them in. I was struck by the deep colors, especially the deep reds used in some of the works. Red was worked into paintings featuring Native Americans, used to color their garments or feather accoutrements. This bright red was also used in paintings of battles, to denote bloodshed. The bodies in the works normally were rendered geometrically, often bending together with other bodies to form structures that appeared almost sculptural, although rendered in paint. The medium Lawrence utilized, egg tempera on hard board, makes these paintings quite unusual. The paintings tend to have long diagonal shapes or motion—the reaching or rising of hands and arms, weapons drawn, or farming implements stretching across the painting. Lawrence clearly sees beauty in difficult moments, and by rendering these images, allows us to see this too.
My only regret about the exhibit was that there were not thirty more such paintings. I would love to see the whole set of sixty that Lawrence at one time planned on producing. Viewers are also struck by the missing paintings—although much research was done, a few paintings in the series were not discovered. One is presented by simply an open, empty frame—there is not a copy that could be placed in the frame for the viewers. Another few are presented in black and white reproductions. Other African American male artists had works showcased at the edges of the exhibition, providing an interesting contemporary counterpoint to Lawrence’s older works.
There is a parking garage across from the museum entrance. The PEM has a nice café and there are other interesting eateries nearby. The museum store is lovely and a book of the exhibit is available for purchase for $58.00. It features the complete set of paintings from the series.
East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, MA 01970. 978-745-9500, Toll Free 866-745-1876
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am until 5 pm. Closed Mondays (except holidays).
Entrance to the Jacob Lawrence show is included with a general admission ticket. The general admission ticket is typically $20.00 for adults, $18.00 for seniors, $12.00 for students with identification, and free for residents of Salem, Massachusetts. Children under 16 are free.
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Lisa Krissoff Boehm is Dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Professor of History at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, United States. She is the author of a variety of books and articles on the American urban experience.