…It’s easy to read artists—and maybe especially black artists—as mere reporters. Or, worse, sociologists. And Jacob Lawrence’s work does indeed have many reportorial or sociological characteristics: He’s racially conscious (and self-conscious about his role as a voice of his race), he’s influenced by folk art, he’s panoramic in his attempt to depict many layers of society. He has what The Wire would call “the Dickensian element.” These are all artistic choices he made that add to the power of “Migration.” To see it all in one room, all 60 stark yet brightly-colored panels, is to feel the sweep of history.
But what stood out most when I saw the whole series was Lawrence’s modern, existentialist sensibility: his sensitivity to modern loneliness. The great artistic tension in his work is the alternation between crowds and isolation. There is room for individuality in some of “Migration”‘s crowds. In panel 6, showing a railway car crammed with migrants, a mother nurses her infant and a man prays by a woman’s bunk. “Migration” is modern in its depiction of technology, the trains, and the machines—panel 7 uses rushing colored lines, flaming and flowing, as abstract images of urban life and industrial work—but it returns insistently to the inner human experience.One of the more unusual themes in “Migration” is the presence of modern loneliness and alienation in rural scenes as well as urban ones. We’re used to bleak and inhuman depictions of skyscrapers and subway lines. But Lawrence gives us, in panel 8, Biblically-stark and leafless branches rising up from a flooded field—nature’s metonymy for the loneliness of bereft human beings. In panel 9 the delicate flowers of the cotton are attacked by giant boll weevils, against a jagged stylized background. The Southern trees are always spindly and contorted.