Culture  /  Museum Review

Knives Out

‘Struggle: From the History of the American People’ charts the strife of early US history in a fierce Cubist/Expressionist style.

Titled by Lawrence Struggle: From the History of the American People and worked on between 1954 and 1956, the twenty-four small pictures on view present moments of many kinds of struggle. (Of the original series, five more have not been found, and one, due to its fragile condition, could not travel.) We see strife on shipboard, in colonial assemblies, in street uprisings, between particular persons, or even in an empty, snowy landscape where elk have been killed by trappers. The tenor of these struggles is physical, literal, and violent. And yet the panels left this viewer believing that Lawrence’s sense of the American past is not that of continual confrontation, fury, and loss, nor that his tone is condemnatory or even reproving.

He seems less outside these moments, judging them from an educated twentieth-century perspective, than a participant within them. He appears too caught up imaginatively in staging his sometimes fevered or bleakly chilly and desolate scenes to pronounce in favor of one side or the other. For this writer, the series is actually a joy and a revelation. It presents a Jacob Lawrence we have not known, a rash, sometimes not altogether comprehensible artist who is different from the somewhat benign creator of pageantlike and often sweet-tempered scenes of urban, and largely African-American, life.

Not seen in its entirety since 1958, the series will at the least be unfamiliar to most viewers. And while the pictures elicit a good deal of commentary in the show’s accompanying catalog, my sense is that, perhaps because they have not had a complete viewing in so long, they have not been sufficiently singled out in the writing on Lawrence. He wanted his story to begin with the run-up to the Revolution and to end with the goodwill tour of the world made by the United States Navy in 1908. His initial aim was to chart the “struggles and contributions of the Negro people.” He went about it the way he approached the Migration panels and his other historical series, which included multipicture accounts of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. That is, he first immersed himself, at a library desk, in the histories and pictures he found.