Painter, collagist, printer and writer, Romare Bearden is among the most interesting figures and innovative artists in Twentieth Century American art. One of the greatest African American artists of his time, he may well be the foremost collagist in our art history.
Bearden’s ability to manipulate photographs, colored paper and paint into vivid artistic compositions portraying the black experience in America is on full display in this large and rewarding exhibition. With some 130 works in diverse media, “The Art of Romare Bearden” is the most comprehensive retrospective every assembled of the artist’s work.
Organized by the National Gallery of Art, where it will be on view through January 4, the show travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (February 7-May 16); Dallas Museum of Art (June 20-September 12); Whitney Museum of American Art (October 14-January 9, 2005), and High Museum of Art (January 29-April 24, 2005).
Curated by Ruth E. Fine, the National Gallery’s prolific curator of special projects in modern art, the show is displayed thematically in a roughly chronological sequence. Many images are drawn from places Bearden lived and worked in the rural South, Pittsburgh, New York’s Harlem and the Caribbean Island of St Martin. The works reflect the artist’s wide and often overlapping interest in the everyday lives of African Americans, including rituals, religion, jazz clubs, brothels, history, mythology and literature. The accompanying catalog provides context for Bearden’s oeuvre and insights into the origins of his art.
Bearden (1911-1988) was born in Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County, N.C., but moved with his family to Harlem in 1914. His father, Howard, was a sanitation inspector for the New York City Department of Health and played piano in his spare time with the likes of jazz greats Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. His dynamic mother, Bessye, became New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, an influential black newspaper.
Growing up during the Harlem Renaissance, Bearden’s family home was a gathering place for such important figures as painter Aaron Douglas, writer Langston Hughes, and many prominent musicians. Those associations and visits to Harlem nightspots led to the artist’s strong attachment to jazz, inspiring some of his best work.
Bearden took art courses at New York University, graduating in 1935. He studied briefly at the Art Students League, where German-born artist George Grosz introduced him to a broad range of Western art history. Bearden’s collage of 1967, “Backyard,” was inspired by Seventeenth Century Dutch genre painting. Grosz, with his ties to the Dada movement, also sparked Bearden’s interest in collage work, and encouraged inclusion of political and social themes in his art. Bearden also picked up ideas from visits to New York museums and galleries, where he was exposed to everything from African art to European modernism, especially Pablo Picasso.
From the late 1930s into the 1960s Bearden worked for the New York City Department of Social Services. His artwork was limited to nights and weekends. He served in the Army in World War II and traveled in Europe on the GI Bill in 1950. Not until he was in his late fifties was he able to work full-time as an artist.
In 1954 Bearden married Nannette Rohan. They soon moved to an apartment downtown on Canal Street, their home for the rest of their lives. In the early 1970s the Beardens established a second residence on St Martin, Ms Bearden’s ancestral home.
Bearden began to paint seriously around 1935, urged on by friends active in the Harlem Renaissance. His affiliation with such major figures as Douglas, Hughes, Charles Alston, Augusta Savage and Carl Van Vechten prompted him to focus on work that explored and celebrated African American history, oral traditions and personal experiences, with touches of Grosz-inspired social commentary.
Starting in the early 1940s Bearden created a number of large works in gouache on brown paper, highlighted by “The Family,” 1941. These works, reflecting his admiration for Mexican mural painters such as Diego Rivera, achieved a kind of strength and monumentality.
Bearden experimented with abstract compositions in several narrative series of paintings based on biblical motifs and the poetry of Spaniard Frederico Garcia Lorca. A standout is the Picasso-inspired oil, “Now the Dove and the Leopard Wrestle,” 1946.
Bearden was a founder of “Spiral,” a group of black artists committed to promoting civil rights in the art world. To support the March on Washington in August 1963, Bearden proposed that the group make a collaborative statement in collage. When his colleagues declined to participate, he set aside his oil painting and began creating his own collages, employing a photomontage style derived from Cubism. Using clippings from newspapers and magazines, he turned out more than a score of densely layered, complicated compositions that presaged his mastery of the genre.
As he went along, Bearden innovated and integrated many techniques into a vibrant, modernist style. In his hands, collages proved well suited to capturing the fractured existence and disconnected status of blacks in the United States. He excelled at exploiting the fragmentation and artistic complexities of collage to create a visual language of narrative and metaphor that portrayed the African American experience.
Blending childhood memories and art historical knowledge, Bearden created an original and exciting narrative of black history and the lively world of contemporary music. His use of form, light, color and spatial perspective in these two-dimensional works reflected artistic influences ranging from primitive work of Giotto to genre scenes of Breughel and Vermeer to abstractions of Léger, Matisee and Picasso to the historical sweep of Douglas and Jacob Lawrence.
Among early collages that refer to his Mecklenburg County roots is Bearden’s “Watching the Good Trains Go By,” 1964. This and other works use the railroad train as a symbol of the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North, in which he participated. Similarly, references to rural cabins, harvesting in fields, a speeding train and a seated man perhaps ready to move north make up a relatively large — 46 by 56 inches – collage, “Tomorrow I May Be Far Away,” 1966-67, owned by the National Gallery.
Throughout the latter part of his career Bearden over and over evoked memories and places associated with favored themes. He frequently depicted scenes in Pittsburgh, recalling visits there to his grandparents. His friendship with a sickly artist who died young is recalled in the densely populated and colorful “Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene,” 1978. Suggesting the complexity of Bearden’s technique, this small work incorporates collages on various papers with paint, ink, graphite and bleached areas on fiberboard.
Jazz and the blues, emanating from both north and south sources, were recurring themes in Bearden’s art. In a series entitled “Of the Blues,” created in 1974, Bearden used clear forms and bright colors to depict musical scenes in New York, Kansas City and Mecklenburg County. Highlights are “At the Savoy,” reflecting the exuberant dancing and syncopated sounds of that framed Harlem ballroom, and “Wrapping It Up at the Lafayette,” recording the crowded scene at that Harlem theater.
One of Bearden’s brilliantly hued late collages, “Piano Lesson,” 1983, featuring odd perspectives and profiled figures, puts one in mind of Lawrence’s work.
In image after image Bearden conveyed the vitality, energy, round-the-clock activities and crowded living conditions of Harlem. A star of the exhibition is “The Block II,” 1972, a fascinating montage of brick structures with their facades removed to reveal myriad activities inside. Measuring 251/2 by 72 inches, it is composed of 18 fiberboard and wood panels that suggest the complexities of the lives of people residing within one block of the vast city.
“The Block” inspired a commission for a huge mural for the City Council Chambers in Berkeley, Calif., commemorating the history and evoking the heritage of that variegated university community. Drawing on photographs and tours of the city, Bearden composed an entirely nonautobiographical collage of seven panels that incorporated such elements as Buddhist worship service and political rallies, sailing vessels and Native Americans, and white historical figures, all specific to the area.
“An amazing response to a community spirit, ‘Berkeley — The City and Its People’ embodied the diverse factions in that complex city,” says Fine. Completed in 1973 and measuring a whopping 10 by 16 feet, it is being displayed at the National Gallery for the first time outside Berkeley.
The beauty and dignity of black women was an abiding motif in Bearden’s oeuvre. He depicted such women in varied personas, from nudes to lovers to relatives to spiritual healers from the South and the Caribbean. “Woman and Child Reading” (recto), 1984, celebrates the mother and child relationship in an overlapping collage image. A standout in the National Gallery show is the highly sensual, minimally outlined figure, “Reclining Nude,” circa 1977, a collage that reflects the artist’s admiration for the work of Henri Matisse.
For a decade beginning in 1974 Bearden produced dozens of oil monotypes on a variety of themes, especially the blues, as exemplified by the vague and evocative “Mirror and Banjo,” circa 1983.
Toward the end of his life Bearden turned to landscapes, often devoid of figures, with especially effective works recalling the area of North Carolina where he was born. “Mecklenburg Autumn: October — Toward Paw’s Creek,” 1983, reflects a new-found, “loose, expressionistic coordination of paint and collage in…effusive landscapes,” as Fine puts it. He also depicted the luxuriant vegetation, rock-bound pools and views of the sea from his part-time home on St Martin.
In the last decade of his life Bearden created several autobiographical narratives or “Profiles” that mined memories of people and places that had been important in his life. Collage offered an approach conducive to pulling together bits and pieces from a lifetime of varied experiences.
Works in autobiographical series particularly recalled Mecklenburg County and Harlem in complex collage-and-paint images. A highlight is “Profile/Part III, The Thirties: Artist with Painting and Model,” 1981, Bearden’s only known self-portrait. In depicting himself at work on a painting with a nude model standing by, he paid homage to a work of one of his artistic heroes, French realist Gustave Courbet’s “The Painter’s Studio,” 1855.
Prolific as a political activist and writer, as well as artist, Bearden received a good deal of recognition for his humanitarian and civil rights endeavors and his publications, notably the pioneering A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. Co-authored with Harry Henderson, it was released posthumously in 1993, and is a valuable text in the field.
Bearden was the subject of numerous museum exhibitions, including a traveling retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1971 and a posthumous retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1991. Among his awards and honors was the National Medal of Arts, conferred by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.
Reflecting an enormous amount of insightful research and study by curator Fine and her colleagues, “The Art of Romare Bearden” will be the definitive Bearden show for a long time. It captures the breadth, richness and depth of the oeuvre of this outstanding, idiosyncratic artist.
The exhibition and catalog suggest that the artist’s genius lay in assembling collages and photomontages of varied textures that evoke the reality, traditions, serenity and tensions of the African American experience. In the final analysis, Bearden was the master of the sensual, lively image posed in dramatic balance between illusion and reality.
The retrospective does justice to Bearden’s intellect, talent, imagination and humanism, and is bound to encourage further close examination of his body of work. Complete and rewarding as this exhibition and catalog are, Fine has it right when she concludes, “We have merely begun to scratch the surface of what Bearden offers us.”
The 334-page catalog, with 200 color and 100 black and white illustrations, is available in hardback (published by the National Gallery and Harry N. Abrams) for $50, and in softcover (published by the National Gallery) for $35.
The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information: 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov.