Susan Soccoccia | 10/20/2009, 5:30 a.m.
Lawrence’s series rendered epic stories on a close-up, human scale. He wrote a title and his own brief text to accompany each panel, which presents an episode of the story.
Starting with his first series, he used the same method to produce the panels, each 11-by-19 inches in size. “He carefully designed each picture, outlining what he wanted and then going back to fill in the colors,” says Hills, who was a long-time friend of both Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, also an artist.
After spreading the papers out, he would apply one color at a time—for example, all reds, and then all blues—to visually unify the series.
Now at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, the 41 paintings in the L’Ouverture series follow the life of the man who abolished slavery in Haiti, the first country in which slaves successfully rebelled and won their freedom. The panels move from his birth through his victories over French, Spanish and English battalions to his betrayal and capture. Although he died in a French prison in 1803, the year after, Haiti became an independent nation.
In 1939, when he was 20, Lawrence presented the series in the first museum exhibition of African-American art, held at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
One year later, Lawrence painted his epic migration cycle, which the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed in its first solo exhibition dedicated to a black American artist. MOMA also organized a nationwide museum tour of the paintings, and “Fortune” magazine published 26 of its 60 panels.
After serving in World War II in the U.S. Coast Guard, Lawrence returned to New York and began a distinguished college teaching career. In the ’70s, he and his wife moved to Seattle, where he joined the faculty of the University of Washington, retiring with emeritus status in 1986.
Soon after, he began working with master printer Lou Stovall to translate 15 episodes of his L’Ouverture series into silk-screen prints. The resulting images are larger than the originals, and while faithfully replicating the paintings, the silk-screen versions have a smoother finish that sharpens lines and colors.
The heightened graphics accent the visual haiku of Lawrence’s compositions, which communicate telling details with spare expressiveness.
He depicts the newborn L’Ouverture with a cartoon-like pair of ovals. A furrowed brow conveys the concentration of leaders planning their strategy. Against a sea of blue, Napoleon’s boats are simply lines and curves in gold topped with the French tricolor.
Along with a uniform palette, Lawrence also created a vocabulary of recurring shapes for each series. Silhouettes interlock like puzzle pieces in various ways throughout the cycle.
The cylindrical form of stovepipe hats repeats in many images. Soldiers’ faces are mask-like triangles. In “The March” (1995), the matching uniforms and muskets of the troops create surging, multi-colored diagonals. Sugarcane starts out green, but as the rebellion progresses, the leaves gain bands of red that suggest tongues of flame.
The second-to-last scene shows the captured L’Ouverture; but Lawrence does not end his story there. His final print, “To Preserve Their Freedom” (1988), looks forward to the ultimate triumph of L’Ouverture’s rebellion in 1804, when his successor leads Haiti as an independent republic.