The Builders & The Destroyers

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of America’s greatest African American artists – but you could just as easily say that he was one of the preeminent artists of the 20th Century. There’s no doubt that his narrative style, a blend of social realism and flattened abstract picture planes, was to influence legions of artists – myself being one of them. His evocative and clear-headed works, while focusing on the adversity and privation endured by African Americans, spoke of oppression as a universal problem. Likewise, his series of artworks dealing with the likes of Toussaint L’Ouverture (The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture) and John Brown (The Life of John Brown), unflinchingly focused a spotlight upon revolutionary violence as a way of ameliorating the worst outrages suffered by humanity. So I find it more than a little amusing that one of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings now hangs in the Bush White House.

The Washington Post reported on Sept. 20, that the Green Room of the White House has been freshly redecorated under the direction of First lady Laura Bush, and part of the renovation involved the placement of the painting The Builders, a newly acquired masterpiece created by Jacob Lawrence. In May of 2007, Christie’s sold The Builders at its auction of American Paintings for $2,504,000 – a world record price for a work by Lawrence. It was a privately funded department of the White House mansion’s historical association that purchased the painting.

The Builders - painting by Jacob Lawrence

[ The Builders – Jacob Lawrence 1947. Tempera on board, 20 by 24 inches. ]

The Post quoted Laura Bush’s comments regarding the painting, “I like the strength of it. It’s a very, very strong picture. The people in it are strong. He (Lawrence) liked the idea of a lot of people working together to build, I think that’s really just a picture of our country; that’s what our country relies on.” That remark might draw looks of stunned disbelief from the Katrina-ravaged people of New Orleans, but the irony is apparently lost on the First lady.

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