The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts
That is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned in what continues to one of the art world’s most fascinating and evolving mystery about reuniting all thirty paintings and texts in Jacob Lawrence’s "Struggle... From the History of the American People." This detective work and initial reunion begins with researchers right here at UVA and may never have come to light were it not for the exhibition laboratory provided by The Fralin Museum and the collaboration of the Carter Woodson Institute.
Former Senior Curator of The Phillips Collection and current University Professor, Beth Turner had long been fascinated with the work of American modernist painter Jacob Lawrence, when she and her students with the help of a dedicated collector, Harvey Ross, began planning for a reunion exhibition of Lawrence’s “Struggle” series painted between 1954 and 1956 at the launch of the modern civil rights movement that focused on pivotal moments in the origins of American democracy from the perspective of people of color.
Each panel captures a different moment, all from angles rarely before considered. Each one forces us to challenge the iconic events of history that have long been imprinted in our minds, but seen anew when paired with and inspired by new voices from primary documents: letters, speeches, petitions, reports, that served as Lawrence’s captions. We are all used to images such as the gigantic Emmanuel Leutze painting in the Metropolitan Museum, where Washington Crossing the Delaware is standing proudly, almost willing the boat and its men to a shore clearly in sight. “There is no doubt when you look at that painting who is most important and who is in charge, and how the event is going to come out successfully,” Turner said.
In Lawrence’s Washington Crossing The Delaware, the artist relies on the report of Washington’s secretary, Tench Tilghman who was on the scene and actually riding with the regular troops crossing in the small, icy crowded boats. The facts, she explains, as found in Tilghman’s words, tell a different story: “We crossed the River at McKonkey's Ferry 9 miles above Trenton ... the night was excessively severe ... which the men bore without the least murmur...” The certainty of Leutze’s epic painting and the majesty of Washington’s leadership now ceding center stage in Lawrence’s painting to the bravery of the men in deadly danger, fresh from two devastating defeats and facing a dark night and ice-filled waters, headed toward an outcome that was anything but certain.
“Lawrence,” she said, “was looking to inaugurate a radically new kind of popular reading of American history relying upon diverse vantage points of eye-witnesses.”
That reading would be postponed for sixty years due to the fact that after the last time the “Struggle” series was presented in its entirety at the Charles Alan Gallery in 1958, the pieces were sold to a private collector who then sold off each individually and stripped them of their historical captions—so essential to their importance as a narrative.
After writing about and teaching the series for many years, in 2017 Turner entered into a pivotal role in their return to the public eye by teaming with Austen Barron Bailly, now Chief Curator at Crystal Bridges Museum, to reunite the existing pair in an exhibition launched by the Peabody Essex Museum. At that time there remained five empty spaces where the missing pieces should be, accompanied by their respective historical captions.
Turner said that when they opened the exhibit at The Met, in New York where the series was initially exhibited and sold, it was their “gambler’s hunch” that they might fill in missing pieces of the puzzle. “We thought that if we can get people to see this as a whole narrative, not something that is broken, but rather something that is whole, she said, “that we might be able to complete Lawrence’s vision.”
The hunch paid off. Turner got an email last October from curators Randall Griffey and Sylvia Yount at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A museum visitor had noticed that Lawrence’s panels looked very similar to a painting she had seen at a friend’s apartment in New York. “These people had owned this painting for 60 years and had no idea it was part of this narrative,” Turner said.
The narrative for the newly found panel was almost eerie when placed against the backdrop of current events. Its caption, concerning insurrection, was excerpted from a letter to George Washington from Henry Knox, who wrote: “There are combustibles in every state which a spark may set fire to.” The panel, referencing “Shay’s Rebellion,” depicts a standoff between Americans who had only recently been united in the cause of revolution. “They are complaining about taxes,” Turner said, “and you can see that there is this very tense standoff and the points of the bayonets are touching bodies and drawing blood. That feels so close to home for me after the events of January 6 in Washington.”
Even after all this time immersed in Lawrence’s works, Turner remains amazed at not just the works themselves, but the active challenge they put out to all of us as Americans. “The Struggle series is all about going back to a process of reading and visualization,” she said. “Lawrence demonstrated a process that allows us to do more. The words and images are not exactly descriptors of one another, they call forth ideas and they call forth emotions, and they ask us to connect them—to get to the heart of the hard truths that we all face in our past, our present, and our futures.”