Jacob Lawrence's Hiroshima
In 1982, Sidney Shiff, owner of the Limited Editions Club, New York, commissioned the artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) to make illustrations for a book of his choice. Lawrence selected Hiroshima (1946), John Hersey’s extraordinary account of six survivors of the first atomic bomb attack. The result was a series of eight paintings inspired by Hersey’s text to rank among Lawrence’s most powerful visual statements. Now part of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) permanent collection, the Hiroshima series (1983) is Lawrence’s devastating evocation of the physical and emotional impact of the Hiroshima bombing.
This intimate exhibition placed the Hiroshima series in the context of Lawrence’s career as an empathetic chronicler of history and his own time. These and other works demonstrate this great African-American painter's compelling vision of the complexities of everyday life. Rather than “illustrate” the text he selected, Lawrence drew on his own experience in urban communities to imagine the bomb’s “noiseless flash” as it destroyed lives and irrevocably changed our culture. Conceived towards the end of his long and multifaceted career, the paintings bring together numerous overlapping formal and narrative concerns in a way that distinguishes the series from his earlier work. The settings are universal, the identities of the victims beyond issues of race or nationality, politics or religion. They achieve a poignancy that is grounded in Lawrence’s life-long engagement with humanistic themes.