Jacob Lawrence’s Haitian Revolution

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I am prone to a milder form of a disorder Ruskin suffered from, in the throes of which he convinced himself that he detected a hidden order in the random happenings of, say, a certain winter afternoon in Venice. So, on a recent afternoon in the British Museum I made a set of non sequiturs into a meaningful narrative. The sequence began with an anti-climax, a return visit to Nebamun’s tomb, in an obscure corner at the back of the building. I had discovered this wonder two months earlier, thinking it a new installation. Here the vividest wall paintings that survive from ancient Egypt show hunting in a marsh and dancing at a feast, well stocked with reeds, birds, an unexpected cat (every hair of whose fur stands out), plates piled high with food and unclothed dancing girls.

This small room had been my main goal, but now had nothing like the powerful effect of the day when I was the tomb’s discoverer. From this point onward, I was thinking of the exit, gave the Assyrian reliefs a distracted glance and halted only at some scanty fragments from Crete, just because we might be going there.

Then at the end of the corridor leading to the main entrance, an oversized image jumped out. It could have been a brightly lit mural like the mock-ups from Knossos I had just left behind, but in fact it was a projection which kept changing. The technique was bold, assembling flat patches of strong colour, no shading or detail to speak of, to depict violence in strangely satisfying ways.

The effect was very close to children’s cut-outs in colored paper, but a sophisticated feeling for design created exciting spaces in the flatness, as in one where a black man tied to a chair is threatened by white officers brandishing swords who form a web shrinking to a point in the distance. Or as in a troop of soldiers riding straight towards us and closing in on one of their number. It’s evident that these are not paper cut outs but paintings, so the primitive feel is deliberate, more like Picasso than a child. By now I’ve gathered that the traces of eighteenth century dress, and the uniforms with braid consisting of yellow squiggles belong to the story of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 and its exotic hero Toussaint l’Ouverture.

12208-842.jpgThe paintings date from 1938 and are late fruits of the Harlem Renaissance. The artist, Jacob Lawrence, had been trained in the art school in Harlem established by the movement, had seen W E B Dubois’ play about Toussaint in 1934 and then researched the subject in the New York Public Library. The series started out as 41 paintings in tempera on paper. It isn’t easy to come by reproductions of the whole set; Lawrence supervised silkscreen prints of 15 of them he considered the best. The painted versions, each only 19 by 11 inches, were used to make the ten huge projections in the British Museum display. They must be something like 9 feet by 5 on the big screen, the size of a large Jackson Pollock, and they support the enlargement brilliantly and become truly heroic images.

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In the years just before Lawrence painted them the United States had occupied Haiti for almost twenty years, from 1915 to 1934. Undoubtedly this dark history was in his mind as he meditated on the revolution and its miraculous success 130 years earlier. As another dark moment is in mine, encountering this small exhibition the day after it went up and six weeks after the current American president called Haiti a ‘shithole country’ in the course of an argument against allowing immigrants from such countries to remain.

Modern works from the Brera, Milan at the Estorick

 

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This was the most enjoyable small exhibition I can remember. It’s partly the domestic scale of the spaces at the Estorick Gallery in Islington, partly too the modest scale of the paintings, and maybe something un-doctrinaire and playful in the way most of them approach the task.

It’s just luck which painting you start with, but it can make a difference. Sironi’s The Lamp shows a plump tailor’s dummy in high heels adjusting a lamp hanging over a table. It hovers somewhere between Cubist rigour and a homely interior. The next Sironi tries something else entirely, a telescoped fragment from a city street dominated by a big motor car jammed against impressions of architecture, a more typical Futurist subject but not quite rigorous enough to qualify. This is what I’ve always liked about Sironi, that he doesn’t entirely believe in whatever mode he has adopted, like the almost-Fascist classicism that comes later, for which he is mainly remembered now.

Next came Filippo de Pisis (a pseudonym) entirely new to me and a favourite, who does Surrealist subjects in an exuberant sensuous style that is a send-up of Surrealist dread. Marine Still Life with Shrimps does take place on a beach, just about. Wonderfully impressionistic open clam shells and shrimps are displayed on tilted sand-coloured rectangles and also on the bits of ordinary beach that are allowed to remain around the edges. De Pisis is also present in an almost cartoon version of the façade of St Moise in Venice (already a cartoon in reality), where frenzied (the catalogue’s word) Baroque brushwork practically dissolves the subject.

With de Pisis goes Ottone Rosai who enjoys the paint in which he renders his Cubist glasses and bottles too much to stick to his agenda of deconstructing reality, which is thwarted too by his full blooded palette. The serious backup in this first room was provided by Carlo Carrà whose de Chirico-like interiors come with their own brand of wit: mannequins are connected by lead pipes into a general system of heating or circulation. An earlier Carrà, Rhythms of Objects, perhaps the most demanding picture in the show, outdoes the Cubists in its impossible density of ordinary objects multiplying themselves for unfocused eyes. Are they crockery on a table, or fragmentary human figures, or a combination of the two?

Equally enigmatic is Gino Severini’s Le Nord-Sud which mixes the indoors and the outdoors, as a ride across the city on an elevated train usually does. Here sudden incisions in reality let you see through to fluffy seascapes sliced through by orderly ranks of sharks, or dark interiors mistaken for tunnel entrances. Somewhat difficult to pick out and superimposed on all the hints of journeys are two sedate matrons with effusions of broken lace at their throats.

Marino Marini’s bronze head of Emilio Jesi, collector of all these paintings, presides over the second room. It is mounted at a pronounced tilt and exudes a genial calm. This is a less serious room, or is it just the children’s tables for sketching and colouring-in which make it feel this way? For here we meet a powerfully spiritual or at least ectoplasmic Giorgio Morandi, whose bottles are transparent or luminous and coated with a mysterious dust at the same time. One little pitcher emits a strange pink glow, at least around its neck, which makes it look something like flesh.

There are other Morandis, as well as the whole room of Morandi etchings and drawings from the permanent collection on the top floor. There’s another Sironi landscape of a desolate urban scene crossed by railway tracks with three promising industrial portals in the second Jesi room. This is matched by one upstairs, smaller and even bleaker. Two artists not included in the Brera selection, Medardo Rossi and Renato Guttuso, are also up there, permanently, the first in a richly grimed wax sculpture of a moment glimpsed in a city street, the second in a characteristically crude but gripping work, a dead proletarian hero in a hospital bed. Is it just my imagination or is Guttuso thinking of Mantegna’s similarly foreshortened dead Christ? Guttuso’s shroud is a riot of angular folds and colours—green, purple and ochre all lurking in the monotonous white of the sheets.

The biggest painting in the second Brera room is Mario Mafai‘s Butchered Ox which shows two oxen rendered in what the label calls an ‘intensely expressive and emotionally painterly style.’ But I had to put Soutine’s much wilder versions of the same subject out of my mind to enjoy the abandon of this one. The catalogue prints Butchered Ox upside down. The tradition of inverting modern paintings, deliberately or inadvertently, is a venerable one.

This instance made me turn the catalogue upside down to look at Mafai the right way up and I couldn’t help carrying on, like a thwarted Baselitz, with the rest of the collection. It’s a better joke with some than with others. Almost all the paintings I have singled out survive the experiment well, especially the Carràs and the still lives generally. A zaniness which is always there in Morandi, not far beneath the surface of these quiet, obsessive pictures, is revealed even more clearly when you invert them.