SOMETIMES online museum content is a blessing. Consider the case of the “Migration Series,” Jacob Lawrence’s masterpiece, a powerful suite of bold panels narrating the World War I–era migration of African Americans from the rural
and harsh South to the urban, and often no less harsh, industrial North.
The series, painted in 1940 and 1941, has 60 panels. All 60 were purchased in 1942, 30 by the Phillips Collection in Washington DC (the first US museum dedicated to modern art) and 30 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Both museums’ panels were showcased at the Phillips several years ago, in collaboration with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and in October 2016 the Phillips created an interactive website for them, allowing the luxury of contemplating the works at leisure in the comfort of one’s home. (MoMA has its own in-depth “Migration Series” site.)
Lawrence plotted his work out carefully, writing a caption for each panel, sketching detail what each one would depict. He painted all the panels simultaneously, that is, working not panel by panel but color by color, applying each color of paint across all the panels to ensure their visual cohesion, a complex undertaking, to be sure.
At the site, clicking on each densely colored image pulls up the narrative behind it. In addition, the website offers a video interview with Lawrence, who died in 2000. Panel 60 is titled, “And the migrants kept coming.” It refers to the northern goal for southern blacks, but it’s hard in 2020 not to extend the notion to today’s migrants, all over the world, who are indeed still coming. The site invites visitors to create and submit their own Panel 61.
The guide to the Phillips show, Jacob Lawrence and the Migration Series: From the Phillips Collection, edited by Henry Louis Gates, is available through dealers on Amazon.