WITH the Quincentennial upon us, many Americans have been inspired to look more deeply at their past, to discover new heroes, to question more carefully what they find heroic. Nothing could be more timely than the exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's historical series "Frederick Douglass" and "Harriet Tubman" from the Hampton University Museum's collection. (The show, which originated at the Chicago Art Institute, is currently on view in Houston.)
The African-American artist began to chronicle the lives of these heroes of the Emancipation at the beginning of his career in 1938. In the two years it took him to complete the twin series, Mr. Lawrence honed his considerable talent and created 63 remarkable paintings that stand today, critics say, among his best work.
The work as a whole is a revelation of American history, African-American experience, and of Lawrence's art. Each piece is accompanied by a text Lawrence wrote from his research on Douglass and Tubman. These texts, though simple and teacherly in tone, are often movingly eloquent.
One of the great achievements of the show is its excellent catalog - written in keen, straight-forward prose by Ellen Harkins Wheat. She points out that Lawrence divides Douglass's life into three periods - slave, fugitive, and free man. He chose his subject and wrote his text (primarily from Douglass's autobiography) for each picture and completed all the drawings in the series. Then he mixed his colors (in casein tempera on gessoed hardboard), filling in the area in each picture where that color belong ed. He worked on all the panels at the same time, thus achieving a perfect color coherence throughout the series.
Lawrence was more literal in the Douglass pictures than he was in the Tubman series. The Douglass pieces allowed him to develop his technique in a new medium. He experimented with a stylization of form that did not stereotype his subjects. This stylization allowed him to experiment with composition, continuity, and symbolism.
But it is in the Tubman series that Lawrence's style matures fully. His compositions become stronger and cleaner, his symbolism is clearer, and his painting technique is surer. In both cases he draws on Christian iconography to express the quality of his heroes' struggles on behalf of their people.
In the Tubman pictures, those symbols come to the service of deeper meaning. Though he deals with the harsh realities of slavery, including the villainous and brutal behavior of some slave holders, the tone of the series is free of malice and political rhetoric. Lawrence's heroes are driven to their lives of service by faith and love rather than by hate.
Lawrence attended Frederick Douglass High School in Harlem. During that time, a vigorous community movement had developed (in the 1930s) that centered on the New York Public Library branch at 135th Street. The library had a collection of black literature and history and sponsored workshops in the arts and crafts for children and adults.
Lawrence got a lot of support from the library, the Harlem Community Center, and eventually from the Harmon Foundation, which supported black culture.
With this early introduction to African-American history and art, he blossomed.
"Lawrence realized that there were no visual records for the great black heroes and heroines," says Charles Stucky, the Chicago Art Institute's curator of 20th-century painting.
"There hadn't been a Jacques-Louis David of black culture [in the United States]. Somehow he realized he'd do it. These are made with movies in mind. Think of the great romance films of the South in the late '20s and '30s. He's thinking cinematically," he says.
The text for one of the Tubman pictures describes how Harriet was sold at auction. The terrible experience is recorded from her point of view - just as in a film we would see a point-of-view shot revealing the faces of the white buyers callously inspecting the human "property."
Mr. Stucky points out an icon of bondage (in the Tubman series) of black feet chained together. It mimics a motion-picture close-up. The slaves' pant legs are made of African cloth that also serves, Stucky says, as a reference to the importance of abstraction in African art.
"This community at that time was supported by knowledge that the most avant-garde of artists had admitted gathering inspiration and direct information from African antiquities. Picasso, Derain, and so forth. So in the '30s and '40s, there was pride in the black community that their culture was one of the pillars of 20th-century art."
Lawrence is a terrific storyteller, Stucky says. The artist drew Harriet's face with a few economical lines. There is a photograph of Tubman in a striped skirt. So, in his piece about her sawing wood, Lawrence developed a rhythm of up-and-down movement following the lines of the skirt, her stalwart shoulders sloped with the effort, her knee bent over the log to hold it in place, the hand that accomplished so much, enlarged and powerful.
Lawrence has created 15 series over the span of his career.
Because social and artistic awareness has changed so dramatically in the last 10 years, corporate support is at last available so that these works can tour and enrich more viewers.
"When nobody else was collecting these artists, they were," Stucky says of Hampton University. "There have been very few publications about black art history. There's a whole empty map, and it is starting to be filled in."
* The exhibit continues at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston through Nov. 29; it travels to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., Feb. 13 through April 25, 1993; and the Los Angeles County Art Museum, June 10 through Aug. 22, 1993.