at the Art Institute of Chicago

Early in his long career, Jacob Lawrence demonstrated a keen understanding of the importance of symbols in art that aims to educate and enlighten. Of the 31 paintings in his 1939-’40 series about the life of Harriet Tubman, one in particular is memorable because it brings into focus the conflicting meanings of an especially potent symbol: silhouetted against a light blue sky in which a stylized sun beams brightly is a ripening cotton plant, its sinuous stalk and leaves and downy bolls filling the space of the panel. It’s a picture of joyful simplicity, composed mostly of light tones and flowing, curvilinear forms.

In another context this appealing image might be seen as a Matisse- inspired paean to growth and light. But in the context of Tubman’s life, of course, the cotton plant’s connotations are momentous and far from benign, as Lawrence indicates in the accompanying caption, which quotes Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe that this government cannot last permanently half slave and half free. . . . It will become all one thing or the other.” This graceful image resonates with contradictions, an uneasy symbol of both beauty in nature and political turmoil. It contrasts sharply with the preceding panel, whose subject is a black man hanging as if crucified; the caption quotes Henry Clay’s rationalization of slavery: “[Slavery] forms an exception (resulting from a stern and inexorable necessity) to the general liberty in the United States.”

Throughout his series of paintings about Tubman and Frederick Douglass, now on view at the Art Institute, Lawrence employs such symbolic images and related texts as well as biographical images and facts to locate his subjects within a historical context while delineating their personal heroism. In these early works he embarked on a course from which he’s never deviated, devoting himself to the investigation of social issues and especially the struggles of African Americans. Lawrence is still active as an artist–he designed the mosaic mural, Events in the Life of Harold Washington, for the Harold Washington Library–and retired only a few years ago from teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The Douglass and Tubman paintings are part of a traveling exhibition organized by the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Virginia. It includes a few examples of Lawrence’s later work, photographs of the construction of the Washington mural, and information on Douglass and Tubman, but its main elements are the 63 paintings arranged in adjoining rooms in two numbered sequences. Their relatively small size–all are about 12 by 18 inches–encourages close reading of the images as well as the captions. Lawrence began by writing the captions, drawn from his research at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Collection; he then made a pencil underdrawing on each hardboard panel and added the casein tempera colors last.

The Douglass series, which Lawrence created first, presents key events from his life: childhood experiences of slavery and clandestine learning, his escape from slavery, his founding and editing of the North Star, and his work in the Underground Railroad and as an orator. The scenes are dominated by a few recurring colors that function on both descriptive and symbolic levels: deep cobalt blue for skies and dark browns and ochres for earth not only evoke the generally rural settings but give the series as a whole a heavy, ominous feel.

The particularly rich cobalt has a clear association with freedom. Very little of it appears early in the series. Consider the second panel: Douglass’s mother–who had been hired out–visits him secretly at night, and a small window in his cabin reveals only a fragment of the deep blue night sky. An exception is the fifth panel, which depicts a well-appointed bedroom in the master’s house. Here the canopied bed, a crib’s blanket, an oval mirror, the sky outside a window, even the border on a carpet are all blue. Such a large quantity of blue doesn’t appear again until late in the series, in panels devoted to the Civil War, and in the final panel, which commemorates Douglass’s return as a free man to the state of his birth.

The color red, though used less frequently, also carries great symbolic weight. In garments it functions mainly as a contrast to surrounding dark colors. But in a few key places–the feather pen with which Douglass writes the North Star, Christ’s robe in a panel showing Douglass at an abolitionist lecture in a church–it functions as a symbol of truth and hope. The small tulip that appears throughout the series is always red.

Lawrence’s angular, distorted figures and skewed perspectives recall the heightened emotional tenor of German expressionism. In the “master’s quarters” panel, the room is shown from an unexpectedly high point of view and the limbs of the furniture, all slightly out of perspective, are bent at impossible angles. In the following panel, which depicts Douglass’s master castigating his wife for having taught Douglass to read, the point of view is more conventional but the master’s tortured posture–head twisted, shoulders uneven, legs akimbo–is not. Spiky, leafless trees in many of the panels have a similar expressive function: their bleak, anguished appearance echoes the emotional and physical difficulties of the protagonist and other characters.

Sometimes Lawrence’s approach borders on the surreal, especially in the Tubman series, when he felt ready, perhaps, to experiment with less narrative methods. A pencil-thin, wavering cloud that flows like a silent witness in and out of many Douglass panels recurs in the Tubman series, but here it takes on a more sinister aspect. The 11th panel, whose caption is a reward notice issued by Tubman’s owner following her escape, shows a star-filled night sky above a dense row of overlapping dark green trees and a band of black earth. A horizontal cloud hovers in the sky like an arm, painted neither white nor blue but the pink Lawrence uses elsewhere for white skin, its five thin segments looking like fingers combing the sky.

As he did in the Douglass series, Lawrence presents the major events of Tubman’s life, emphasizing her courage and daring during repeated Underground Railroad trips and in her work assisting soldiers during the Civil War. But his writing and his images become less strictly factual and more poetic. The caption for the 18th panel reads: “At one time during Harriet Tubman’s expeditions into the South, the pursuit after her was very close and vigorous. The woods were scoured in all directions, and every person was stopped and asked: ‘Have you seen Harriet Tubman?'” The accompanying painting, one of the most surreal in the series, features ghostly pink shapes that appear to search heaven and earth like strange plants or hands; scattered eyes peer from them and from the moon and stars. Lawrence uses this approach–conveying an event from Tubman’s point of view–more than once in the series: the eighth panel, which treats Tubman being auctioned, shows not Tubman but four potential buyers whose unnerving, critical gazes meet the viewer’s.

Lawrence was still a student when he began making these series, and the uneven quality of the design and paint handling betrays their status as early efforts. The Douglass series’ overall dark tonality suits the events and the subject’s serious purpose, but in some paintings minimal contrasts between dark colors make forms difficult to distinguish–a problem Lawrence avoided in the Tubman series by using a much wider range of light and dark tones.

In both series Lawrence sometimes inexplicably left paintings looking unfinished. In panel 27 of the Douglass series, the large central figure (a sculpture personifying democracy or war–its identity is unclear) is sketchily painted, the pencil underdrawing still dominant. The Tubman series is painted thinly throughout, Lawrence’s choppy strokes of paint always visible. At times these add a charge to the scene: in panel 23, which shows a sniffing dog straining at its leash as it searches for a runaway slave, Lawrence’s active strokes complement the tension of the dog’s quivering body. In other panels, however, they merely distract. In panel 26, the strokes of blue in the sky compete for attention with the central dramatic element, a cannon’s red blast of fire.

A thin blue horizontal cloud floats above the straining dog in the 23rd panel, mimicking the contour of his long back and tail. The fourth panel contains a nearly identical ribbon of blue, here painted high above a scene showing Harriet Tubman as a girl, leaping and tumbling with other children. This cloud–Lawrence’s most fluid and mysterious symbol–speaks sometimes of hope, more often of despair, as it weaves its way through childhood and adulthood, innocence and betrayal. Though both series have their awkward or tentative moments, Lawrence’s strong color, well-chosen recurring symbols, and inventive juxtapositions of image and text carry the day: both series dramatically convey Douglass’s and Tubman’s courage in the face of deadly oppression.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Scott Wolff.