“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” retells history at the Birmingham Museum of Art

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Kate Crawford, curator of  Jacob Lawrence: The Struggle
Kate Crawford, Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, walks us through what makes the exhibit particularly special. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is a series that implores viewers to look through an alternative lens of early American history. The preeminent American modernist Jacob Lawrence uses vivid images with a narrative style to showcase how women and people of color helped shape the founding of our nation. Kate Crawford, the Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), walks us through the significance of this incredible series.

A once-in-a-lifetime exhibition

Jacob Lawrence’s work is on display now through February 2021. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

It’s not every day that you’ll be able to gaze over these historical panels. In fact, now may be your only chance to see the awe-inspiring series in full before the works separate and return to private collectors and institutions.

“We are so thrilled to have ‘Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle’ here in Birmingham and to be presenting at the Birmingham Museum of Art. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

It reunites the only Jacob Lawrence series of paintings that are not held together in a museum’s collection. This is Jacob Lawrence’s last large-scale series of paintings, so it is tremendously unlikely that we’ll ever get to see these paintings together again.”

Katelyn D. Crawford, PhD, The William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art, Birmingham Museum of Art

The 30-panel series takes the audience through the well-known and unfrequented events of the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the westward expansion. Lawrence’s paintings divulge information through a mixture of images and recognizable quotes from historical figures.

Uncommon protagonists haunt each scene. They depict stories of those who helped build America but are not recognized as traditional heroic figures.

  • What: Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
  • Where: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Reverend Abraham Woods Jr Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35203
  • When: Now through February 2021
  • Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10AM-5PM | Sunday Noon-5PM
  • Price: Free

Unsung heroes you won’t find in history books

The narratives are not retold in the same way you found on the glossy pages of your high school history textbook. From 1775 through 1817, Lawrence pulls out women, immigrants, Native Americans and people of color and places them at the forefront of the foundation stories of America.

“I love that we’re introducing our audience to Jacob Lawrence through this particular series. I can’t think of a more relevant topic to be looking at right now as we experience a historical moment in life.

While we’re watching a lot of history currently made, Lawrence is looking at American history critically and through his own lens. He’s thinking about the people who are involved in the major events of early American history. Lawrence is elevating common people. He finds everyday heroes, unsung heroes, and he’s really not looking at the great men in the history books he consulted for the series.”

As you contemplate each image, keep asking yourself this one question.

Missing in action

As luck would have it, the BMA is able to premiere the series with the addition of a recently discovered missing panel.

Just a few weeks ago, the series was on display at the Metropolitan Museum when one visitor got a major feeling of deja-vu. They’d seen a Jacob Lawrence painting on display before, but not at a museum. It turns out, the visitor’s Upper West Side neighbor unknowingly hosted a panel from this series for decades in her own home.

Now, three paintings remain missing from the 30-panel series. More than likely, they aren’t in an institution or lost in museum basements. But, rather, in someone’s home—someone who probably isn’t even an art collector.

Missing panel from Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
Check your walls—you could be the owner of a Jacob Lawrence and not even realize it. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

Jacob Lawrence as a social activist and how his work became a statement for future generations

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
Lawrence originally intended for the 30 paintings to be a 60 panels series in book form. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

Art is interpretive and there are many aspects we can each appreciate from Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. But, understanding the research and depth Lawrence underwent to produce such a striking series provides further context to the paintings.

Lawrence began research for the series in 1949, after coming out of hospitalization for deep depression. Despite the pain he was experiencing, the modernist put his energy into becoming a social activist through his art.

Research returns results

“I alarmed almost every house until I got to Lexington”—Paul Revere. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

Lawrence’s talent goes miles beyond artistic abilities. He was a phenomenal researcher, too. The ability to dig into American history and reinterpret it in his art is unsurpassable.

He spent years researching at Harlem’s The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the 135th St. branch of the New York Public Library at the time. Lawrence looked for individuals he wanted to highlight and created a broader narrative for everyone involved in American history.

“Jacob Lawrence is really engaged with the early moments in the Civil Rights Movement. He begins painting this series in 1954 after years of research. That year, of course, is also the year of the ‘Brown V. Board of Education’ decision.

So, to think about the fact that he’s painting this series for contemporary viewers, but it’s particularly for people in 1954-56 to look at American history and think about where the Civil Rights era might go in that moment, is really profound.”

Look through the lens one more time

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
This series displays the struggles of all Americans, not just the ones we typically see in movies and books. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

This isn’t the BMA’s first encounter with Jacob Lawrence. The galleries hosted his retrospective in 1974 and exhibited Lawrence’s Migration Series in 1994.

While the museum received widespread acclaim for the exhibits, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle offers a never-before-seen look into the artist. It’ll provide an unforgettable introduction to first-time viewers of Lawrence’s work and an exciting new hello to those already familiar.

“While we have Lawrence’s work represented in our collection, we aren’t able to present him at this scope and scale. I think it is always incredible to be able to introduce your audience to new artists or reintroduce them to an old friend.

With this exhibition, we are revealing a little-known Jacob Lawrence series to people who know Jacob Lawrence well. But, we’re also able to introduce a portion of our audience that aren’t as familiar with Lawrence to this incredibly important painter for the first time.”

Visit Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at the Birmingham Museum of Art now through February 2021.

The exhibit is free of charge thanks to presenting sponsors Alabama Power and Vulcan Materials.

Be sure to check out Wall to Wall, an interactive exhibit, on display now through spring 2021.

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