In the 41 tempera vignettes that make up “Heroism in Paint: a Master Series by Jacob Lawrence” (currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art through January 17, 2016), Jacob Lawrence dramatizes the life of Toussaint Louverture, revered as the founding father of Haiti who led Haitians in their fight against slavery in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Lawrence’s depiction of the drama is simple and concentrated, as if he is trying to locate specific moments in time when meaning can find its apotheosis, its epiphany. His is a storybook precision merged with a time-clock sense of order, and an overarching, aching desire to be clear, concise, and yet completely revelatory. In other words, in the Louverture series, Lawrence uses visual art to get somewhere. He finds hope and connection and truth in the ashbin of history, where many times heroes like Louverture are given an asterisk sense of importance, left in the periphery in the ongoing pageantry of colonialism.
While Lawrence salvages heroism from Louverture’s life story, he does not give it a crown. Lawrence’s workmanlike resourcefulness and attention to specifics allow each of the 41 paintings in the series a stately, emblematic vigor, without hyperbole. The power of these paintings is their total lack of vanity and pomp, their essential focus on an irony-free sense of conviction and fortitude; piece by piece Lawrence builds his own version of belief with a visual language and style that cuts through propaganda, conveying what true rebellion costs and what often has to be sacrificed.
In each of the 41 pieces (completed between 1936 to 38, all on 19 X 11 ½” paper in tempera), historical spectacle is whittled down to a flattened, coordinated, camouflage-inflected Matisse state of mind. Lawrence’s stylishness depends on austerity for it effects, and yet he also has a sense of largesse, of experiences expanding into ideas, pictographs morphing into myth. He uses his skills to figure out his own sort of testimony through an escalating barrage of images, interconnected by narrative, tone, and color. The whole series, when witnessed chronologically as it is being exhibited at the Taft, has a spiritual, almost monastic quality, but the works themselves do not come off as sacrosanct as much as a testament to Lawrence’s deep need to declassify and reinvent iconography, to own his version of history event by event, demythologizing and mythologizing Louverture simultaneously, chasing after his ghost while also bearing witness to his genius.
In each of the 41 segments, figures, including Louverture, Napoleon, and Haitian citizens and French soldiers, all are streamlined, faceless essences acting out the battles and conflicts in a variety of settings and set-pieces that form a sort of symmetry without losing a ragged sense of loss and anger. The scope is panoramic but the execution and style is intimate. Lawrence finds moments to hook into like a jazz pianist improvising a new world through accessing the same notes over and over in sequence and then out of sequence, situational assessments that yield insight and authority without crowding it all in with rhetoric.
No. 38 in the series is a wonderful case in point. It depicts the violence needed to over throw colonialism. The accompanying text explains, “Napoleon’s attempt to restore slavery in Haiti was unsuccessful. Desalines, Chief of the Blacks, defeated LeClerciera. Black men, women, and children took up arms to preserve their freedom.” The ochre fields, the gray back-lit sky, the electric turquoise of the grass, the gun-metal urgency in the overall set-up all give No. 38 a cinematic grandeur but also a quilted, folk-art grace, a merger of “high art” sophistication and “vernacular art” austerity. Lawrence accomplishes this without declaring a taste for either formats, as if his style itself is moving the subject matter forward, producing a perfect blend of outrage and trance.
Guernica, Picasso’c famous, mural-sized oil-painting created in response to the German bombing of Spain before World War Two, was completed around the same time as Lawrence’s series (in 1937). Picasso’s work has that same urgent sense of needing to be in the world, the same muscular, grim self-assurance. Black lines and a limited palette urge us to focus on the crucial moments in which tragedy somehow aligns perfectly with reality to the point they can no longer be disassembled. Picasso, however, goes full-on operatic, despair given a cave-painting syncopation, while Lawrence’s series gives us first-hand, in-depth telegrams of experience from the sites of each occurrence, snapshots of battlefields, prison-cells, plantations and churches from a fever-dream that’s giving birth to actual history. Lawrence dramatizes with less of a flourish and more of a burn. He takes the same outrage and horror Picasso centralizes and diffuses it, increases the intensity of each sequence in order until meaning triggers meaning like dominoes silently sliding into one another.
Hegel once wrote, “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” Lawrence’s series here provides visual evidence of Hegel’s claim: it’s a tour of one man’s heroic life elevated to fable and legend, without losing the sense of everyday details and struggles involved in living without forgetting you are alive.