Stoking the Flames

Through his art, Jacob Lawrence keeps a revolutionary's vision of freedom alive.

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"The March," by Toussaint L'Ouverture, screenprint.
"The March," by Toussaint L'Ouverture, screenprint.
The impulse that led African American artist Jacob Lawrence to create a series of paintings based on the 18th-century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture is comparable to that which led another American, composer Aaron Copland, to draw on old Shaker melodies in creating the ballet Appalachian Spring. Both artists, during the Depression-ridden '30s, went back to basics. Viewing themselves as public servants (rather than high priests dedicated to "art for art's sake"), they told their audience, in simple language, that present suffering would soon end, and that a better future was on the horizon.

That better future, for Lawrence, was one in which contemporary blacks could take pride in and continue the work of freedom fighters like L'Ouverture. A new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, called Jacob Lawrence's Toussaint L'Ouverture Series, features 15 screenprints that Lawrence executed between 1986 and 1997. (The basis for these prints is a series of 41 paintings he made from 1937-'38.) They tell the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the onetime slave who later emerged as a leader in the Haitian slave rebellion and who also had a key role in drafting that country's first constitution. Though Lawrence created the original paintings in the late '30s, he still believes that the life of L'Ouverture is relevant to African Americans, and he wanted to perpetuate the original series in different media. The work's bold simplicity takes revolutionary fervor seriously. He doesn't make the past fanciful, like the Depression-era artist Grant Wood did in his famous painting of Paul Revere's midnight ride; he has a lesson to tell, and his achievement is that he gives seriousness its full due without lapsing into solemnity.

If artists like Copland and Wood addressed their work to middle America, Lawrence, in this exhibit, is addressing himself particularly to black America. It's not that Lawrence's message is exclusionist (the subjects of freedom, liberty, and human dignity are relevant to every human being); nevertheless, these works contain a hope that they will be seen by the people who would profit most by viewing them. Black philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois (whose writings influenced Lawrence) argued in the 1920s that, if black America wanted to nurture the development of outstanding men like Toussaint L'Ouverture, it had to cherish what was unique about black life, rather than engage in what he called a "servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture." It would, therefore, be the duty of a "Talented Tenth," those blacks most capable of advancing the fortunes of the race, to step forward and teach blacks the stories of their race.

As part of the Federal Art Project in 1938, a young Jacob Lawrence (he was only 21 at the time) established his position as a member of this "Talented Tenth." That year, he created a 33-panel narrative depicting the life of Frederick Douglass, a Maryland slave who later became an abolitionist, speaker, writer, and adviser to presidents. Setting a pattern that has continued to the present day, Lawrence researched his subject thoroughly and accompanied each panel with a bit of text that he wrote especially for the purpose. With his 60-painting series called The Migration of the Negro (which tells the story of how, around 1916, thousands of blacks left the discrimination and poverty in the South to pursue new opportunities in the North), Lawrence's position as the foremost African American artist of his generation was assured. Today, half of the paintings -- those with odd numbers -- are owned by the Philips Collection in Washington, D.C. Those with even numbers are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The first screenprint of the Toussaint L'Ouverture series, called "The Birth of Toussaint," immediately establishes the theme of the series, which is the contrast between enslavement and freedom. A mother is holding an infant, but her surroundings are gloomy: a room rendered in dull browns and blacks with a ceiling, made up of heavy wooden slats, that evokes the bars of a prison. At far left, though, there is a glimmer of hope. Past a window, we see some green plants. They are in the shape of flames and, as they alleviate the darker tones of the interior, they alert us to what life without slavery might be like. These flame-shaped plants are a motif that appears throughout this series. They sometimes appear to symbolize revolutionary spirit (as in a screenprint called "The March," which shows L'Ouverture's forces preparing for battle). At other times, these shapes evoke the hard work of slaves as they toiled for their masters. (In "The Coachman," workers cut flame-shaped plants, while Toussaint passes by on horseback in his prerevolutionary days as a coachman for a plantation owner.)

Lawrence does not go for easy symbols. Though he is interested in making history accessible, he has no interest in doing the viewer's thinking and throwing ambiguity and irony by the wayside. The stylistic consistency is impressive, though. Lawrence frequently creates dynamic compositions based on rhythmic repetition. In "The March," for example, the artist emphasizes the flame-like foliage in the foreground as well as the identical postures, headgear, and rifle positions of the men. The piece recalls similarly structured works like "Zapatistas," a 1931 oil painting by Lawrence's favorite Mexican artist, José Clemente Orozco (who, along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, was a member of the great triumvirate of Mexican muralists). For both men, their revolutionary themes called for work that emphasized not the individual hero, but the hopes and ideals of the masses. Russian filmmakers celebrating revolutionary ideals in the 1920s also employed this strategy, although, unlike either Lawrence or Orozco, they used it to demonize a faceless imperialist enemy. One wonders whether Lawrence, around the time of "The March," was aware of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's famous 1925 film Potemkin and, specifically, its shots of the rhythmically advancing Czarist troops just before they opened fire on peasants standing at the Odessa Steps. That Lawrence was able to synthesize diverse modernist tendencies and to create work that speaks specifically and directly to African American issues is a sign of his power as an artist.

Another arresting feature of this work is Lawrence's clever alternation between an omniscient point of view and those prints that are taken from the vantage point of a character in the narrative, allowing us to view the world the way that person does. Lawrence uses the omniscient style in prints like the one about L'Ouverture's birth. That work and its caption combine to tell us, in effect, "Once upon a time, there was a man named Toussaint, and he was born into slavery." He uses the other style, that of showing a particular character's point of view, to add intensity. He uses this technique sparingly. For example, it is used effectively in a print called "Flotilla." The caption tells us that France did not want to lose a wealthy colony like Haiti (L'Ouverture and his troops had different ideas), so Napoleon sent a fleet there to quell rebellion. Lawrence, in the foreground, has a sandy shore, and in the distance we see the French ships, with their red, white, and blue flags, approaching land. Lawrence is placing us in the position of the Haitians who are watching the approaching ships. To clinch the point, the artist has the French flags look like axes. From a Haitian's (our) point of view, the French are not out to protect their interest in a rich colony; they want to put down freedom.

A second example is the work called "The Burning." When the French invaded the coast, L'Ouverture told his comrade General Dessalines to burn the town of Le Cap, "so that those who have come to make slaves of us again will find before their eyes the image of that hell they so richly deserve." Lawrence chose to use this quote in his caption. The artist gives us a view of the burning village, with the orange flames on the huts echoed in flame-like green plants. We view this scene not from the eyes of the Haitians, but rather the startled French.

Toussaint L'Ouverture died in prison in 1803, after agreeing to negotiate a peace treaty with France. But he's not forgotten. Lawrence has become L'Ouverture's visual biographer. As such, he helps to further the revolutionary's message of freedom and human dignity. Such kinship between artist and subject is not an everyday occurrence; in his own way, the artist is carrying on what L'Ouverture started so long ago. To view this fine exhibit is to learn what it means to become absorbed in history and to have the desire to teach others about what one has learned.

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