Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Struggle’ Speaks To The Human Condition At Critical Juncture For Art History

By Natasha Gural

Looking fatigued and indignant, one soldier with bloody wounds on his head and blood dripping from the tip of his bayonet, glares at his foe in a chilling battle. The opposing sides skirmish as a historic battle comes to life, signaling the endurance of human struggle.

On January 25, 1787, some 2,000 farmers from western Massachusetts attacked the new federal arsenal in Springfield. Government soldiers returned fire, slaying three farmers in what became known as Shays’ Rebellion, named for Daniel Shays who led the insurgents. The farmers suffered economic woes during the American Revolution, and they were rightfully infuriated when creditors demanded that they immediately settle their debts. They condemned the deep-pocketed eastern merchants who lorded over the legislature and the courts. The fight for independence ended in defeat, when 200 rebels were captured and tried for treason, and five were sentenced to death. John Hancock pardoned them all, weeks after being elected governor.

Jacob Lawrence borrows the title of his egg tempera on hardboard painting from a letter written by retired General George Washington to Secretary of War Henry Knox, who oversaw the federal armory in Springfield. The once-mighty city of my birth has for decades now been ravaged by corruption, greed, and rampant racism that permeates its incesetous politics and policing. Once a thriving center for arts, culture, and commerce, the city struggles to maintain any semblance of humanity, as marginalized folks fight to survive amid prolific poverty and violence.

The Met on October 21, 2020, announced the discovery of panel 16 of 30 of , titled There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. — Washington, 26 December 1786. It went on view publicly for the first time at The Met through November 1, 2020, before joining a touring exhibition of the full Struggle: From the History of the American People series, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts.

Jacob Lawrence, Panel 28: Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840 — 115,773 (1956) Private Collection, from Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954-1956) © 2021 THE JACOB AND GWENDOLYN KNIGHT LAWRENCE FOUNDATION, SEATTLE / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK

The exhibition will be on display at the The Phillips Collection in the nation’s capital from June 26 to September 19, traveling for presentations in Birmingham, Alabama, and Seattle, Washington.

As the Modernist master began work on his Struggle series, the nation faced another historic battle for human freedom, when Thurgood Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers argued that segregated schooling violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of law. In the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and outlawed segregation. It was a major step toward establishing the precedent that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not equal at all.

“Singular in their own right and unprecedented for their time, Lawrence’s Migration Series and Struggle: From the History of the American People are visionary artistic historical narratives.  Lawrence, in his Migration Series, tackled beauty in struggle through the lens of a transformative movement in early 20th century America. A decade later, he brought his keen eye and increasingly sophisticated visual language to telling our nation’s origin story and the subsequent struggles that shaped the early republic,” said Elsa Smithgall, senior curator at the The Phillips Collection. ”Across the 30 boldly choreographed Struggle panels, Lawrence creates a space for considering the implications of our complicated history in the ongoing fight to eradicate racial and social injustice.”

Panel 28 was discovered in March 2021, and like 16, it was held in a private collection. Previously known to scholars for 65 years only via a black and white image, this celebration of immigrants bursts from the canvas with rich, warm layering of brown, red, and gold. A woman on the right nurses an infant, bowing her head across from another figure in the same pose, both adoring the child. A man in the center holds a pot with a single red rose, the national flower of the United States. The hopeful image evokes a Nativity scene, signaling the birth of a country built by its immigrants. Conservators and researchers believe that Lawrence received tubes of defective red and brown paint in 1956, but the work has since been expertly treated to ensure its safety for viewers.

Each vibrant, diverse panel is a narrative, comprising this masterpiece that tells a contemporary and contemporaneous story of human struggle. Installed and viewed as a whole, it marks a critical point in art history, perhaps equaling, if not surpassing, the significance of Lawrence’s The Migration Series.

“Double Profile” by Elizabeth Catlett
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Natasha Gural is a multiple award-winning journalist, writer, and editor with 30 years of editorial experience, including executive roles at The Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Markets Media. A student of literature, art history, and studio art, Natasha has learned from leading scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Oxford University, Clark University, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Natasha has been writing about art since 2002, for multiple publications, including The Associated Press and Forbes. She has traveled extensively to cover major art fairs and events, interviewing a wide array of world-renowned and emerging artists, as well as curators, art historians, collectors, scholars, and aesthetes. Her last contact with the global art world was covering TEFAF Maastricht in 2020. Natasha enjoys observing every level of the creative process, from inception to installation, in studios, galleries, and various spaces. Passionate about the art world, Natasha embraces every opportunity to engage key players to better understand and explain the changing dynamic. She seeks to accurately portray the art ecosystem in an ongoing process that immerses her in the art world. A first-generation American, Natasha was raised bilingual and has always been drawn to the innovators, rebels, and outsiders who break down boundaries and strive to broaden the continuum of art history. Her goal is always to fairly and accurately represent the accomplishments of artists in an effort to collectively celebrate the arts.

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