Published  14/03/2005

The Art of Romare Bearden

The Art of Romare Bearden

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
14 October 2004-9 January 2005

High Museum of Art, Atlanta
29 January-24 April 2005

'The Art of Romare Bearden' commenced its run in September 2003 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and travelled to San Francisco and Dallas. It showed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York before moving to its final venue in Atlanta. This is the first comprehensive exhibition of Bearden's work, revealing to many for the first time his significant and profound contribution to American art in the 20th century. It includes some 150 works in collage (perhaps his most important medium), oil, gouache, watercolours, drawings, photographs, monotypes and edition prints, designs for record covers, book illustrations and the ballet, as well as his only known sculpture. Many important works have been borrowed from private collections and this is the first time that they have been widely exhibited.

Ruth Fine, the National Gallery's Curator of Special Projects in Modern Art, who has previously completed studies of major 20th century artists including Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, John Martin and Georgia O'Keeffe, is largely responsible for the exhibition. Her work began shortly after Bearden's death in 1988, when his widow, Nanette, approached the National Gallery for advice on the preservation of his work. Fine has written a thorough, scholarly essay for the superb, fully illustrated catalogue, in which she states the importance of Bearden's work:

One great legacy of Bearden's art is its insight that what we share as a global community is equal, in both interest and importance, to what makes each of us unique. He achieved this by embracing themes and practices from diverse times and places, and by imbuing them with an imaginative character and physical presence that is distinctively his own. In the materiality of his expansive expression, method and message become one.1

Romare Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The city of Charlotte prospered on the growth of the railways and cotton. His father (Richard) Howard Bearden, an inspector for the health department, belonged to the African-American middle class that established itself at the end of the Civil War. His mother, Bessye Johnson Bearden, was a political activist and New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, an important African-American newspaper. Bessye's family owned property and both she and Romare's father were college educated, but even with these relative advantages, life became difficult for the family and they took part in the Great Migration north when Romare was still a child. They settled in New York City, where Romare lived for the rest of his life.

The Bearden home was a meeting place for intellectuals, artists and the politically involved. The group included such names as musicians Duke Ellington and Thomas 'Fats' Waller. Romare attended school, but the most significant aspect of his education was his attendance at drawing classes given by German artist Georg Grosz at the Art Students League. Grosz introduced Bearden to the work of a wide range of European artists, notably Giotto, Ducchio, Dürer, Bosch and Kollwitz. From 1932-1935, Bearden took art classes at New York University and throughout the 1930s he published political cartoons, taking inspiration from artists such as William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier and Francisco de Goya. He also greatly admired the political work of Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz. In contemporary American caricature he saw the potential to sway public opinion and bring about social change. He wrote essays for magazines and political journals such as The Negro Artist and Modern Art and in December 1934, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, for which he also produced the cover design, a strong graphic image of 'architectural density of lower Manhattan, a popular motif among painters and photographers of this period'.2

During the 1930s, Bearden's imagery addressed issues relating to the Ku Klux Klan, Depression soup kitchens, inequality in job opportunities, the rise of Nazism in Europe and racial equality. At the same time, the radical painting of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros had a profound impact on American art, with public projects such as the Rockefeller and other major exhibitions in New York.

The social realist style of Bearden's work in the late 1930s represented his commitment to social change and the belief that art was primarily a means of communicating ideas. Christian iconography, present from his early work, also played an important role in establishing universal appeal for the social context of his work. During this period, the physical quality of his paintings was established - the sensual, rich colours between abstraction and figuration became characteristic of his whole oeuvre. He took part in a dialogue with Picasso, who used cubism and Negro art itself, of which he wrote:

Of great importance has been the fact that the African would distort his figures, if by so doing he could achieve a more expressive form. This is one of the cardinal principles of the modern artist.3

He believed the Negro artist had a calling to portray present day life with passion.

The first solo exhibition of Bearden's work outside of Harlem took place in 1944. However, he was still unable to support himself through his art and for the next 20 years he continued to work in the welfare department and to paint at night and at weekends. In 1945, he visited a retrospective of Georges Rouault, the great French religious painter, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. This was of great importance to his work and in the view of others, it was possible to place Bearden's painting in the tradition to which Rouault held a major position. Classical mythology, literary and biblical themes remained central to his work. 'The Passion of Christ' (1945-1946) shows his early dialogue with universal themes and figurative and abstract imagery. The religious works of the 1940s are marvellous in their immediacy and authentic personal response, often employing black outlines in the style of Rouault. In 1945, MoMA bought two of these religious paintings.

Bearden continued his narrative work using powerful literary themes from a diverse number of writers throughout history, including Spanish poet/playwright Federico García Lorca's bullfight works, 16th century French humanist François Rabelais' political satire and Homer's Iliad-inspired war paintings. For these exciting and beautiful works, Bearden used watercolour, gouache and oil paint. In the late 1940s, he spent some two years working primarily from the masters to compensate for what he claimed was a lack of formal training. These works encompass a range of styles, such as Italian primitive, Northern Renaissance, 17th century Dutch and 19th/20th century works by Degas and Matisse.

In 1949, Bearden's dealer, Samuel M Kootz, excluded him from his gallery, in favour of Abstract Expressionist artists. He did not paint for several years, a period of conflict and self-scrutiny. Ruth Fine observes:

There can be no doubt ... that Bearden maintained the social, intellectual and cultural commitments he had so strongly conveyed in his editorial cartoons of the mid-1930s. This is evident in the way he constructed his life and his work, in his efforts to bring the work of African-American artists into the mainstream and in the power of his art to bridge diverse cultural experience.4

Bearden had a passion for art of all periods. During the hiatus in which he did not paint, he travelled to Paris, where he studied French and philosophy and visited museums in both France and Italy. Gothic stained glass in France, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and the mosaics at St Maria Maggiore in Rome were particularly singled out for his admiration. In Paris, he met artists and intellectuals including Constantin Brancusi and Gaston Bachelard.

In the mid-1950s, with the encouragement of friends, Bearden returned to the visual arts; he had an exhibition of relatively abstract work in 1955 at the Barone Gallery, New York. He married Nanette Rohan in 1954. During this period his new mentor, Chinese calligrapher Mr Wu, introduced Bearden to Chinese landscape painting. Like other artists at the time, such as Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt and the French artist Jean Dubuffet, whose paintings and collages he greatly admired, Bearden found a more subtle route to abstraction through an interest in Zen Buddhism. Fine writes:

The co-ordination of elements from classical Chinese painting with others from contemporary international Modernism provided Bearden's abstract Expressionism with a beauty and energy that was distinctly its own.5

The canvas collage 'North River' (1962) is a primal and elegant work. Having withdrawn from public life in 1956 after a breakdown, Bearden did not exhibit for five years. Between 1963 and 1964, he moved back to figuration, with periodic returns to lyrical abstraction. Inspired by Matisse's cut-outs and 'The Art of Assemblage', an exhibition at MoMA in 1961 featuring work by Dubuffet, Bearden moved from painting-based art to collage-based practice, in which he combined layers of paper with paint, ink and graphite.6. By now, he was also involved in the civil rights movement and a member of the activist group Spiral. He believed:

Western society, and particularly that of America, is gravely ill and a major symptom is the American treatment of the Negro. The artistic expression of this culture concentrates on themes and 'absurdity' and 'anti-art' which provide further evidence of its ill health. It is the right of everyone now to re-examine history to see if Western culture offers the only solutions to man's purpose on earth.7

In 1963, MoMA organised the exhibition 'Americans'. As with other key exhibitions of American art from the 1940s to the 1960s, no African-American artists were included. Questions pertaining to a Negro image of the 20th century were posed by civil rights activists, for which Spiral was an important focus. Spiral artists were enraged by their own absolute exclusion from mainstream art and culture; central to their remit was an attempt to redress the balance for black artists. In 1965, Bearden took part in the only exhibition organised by Spiral, exhibiting a photostatic enlargement from a collage/photomontage, 'a genre of picture-making that may be tracked back to the late 19th century, historically more popular in Europe than in America'.8 Bearden had held an exhibition the previous year, featuring 21 photographically enlarged collages. Ruth Fine points out the layers of interest and ideas with which Bearden managed to infuse these works, which have their roots stylistically in the Dada movement:

Given Bearden's intrepid curiosity, he would have been reading every sort of art publication and viewing as many exhibitions uptown and downtown as possible, his personal and cultural commitments continuing to engage mainstream currents as well as those specific to an African-American milieu. Building on these experiences and his amalgam of talent and imagination, Bearden created collages and photostatic Projections that take their place on the artistic cutting edge in two very different ways. Unfortunately, despite radical differences in size, methodology and relationships to other art, the jewel-like collages and the powerful journalistic Projections, directly corresponding as they do to each other in image and title, are frequently discussed interchangeably, the distinctive qualities of each thereby diminished.9

Bearden made small collages that were then enlarged to the scale and power of television or cinema. The strong journalistic imagery made this an appropriate cultural language, in a society dominated by mass media. Fine describes their significance thus:

Laden with mystery, these small, complex works reveal the dense body of artistic and cultural knowledge Bearden had been accumulating for three decades; they should be considered monuments in both Bearden's oeuvre and in American art of the early 1960s. Allusion is basic to them, and as with Bearden's later works grasping references and possible meanings requires lengthy engagement. Gracefully intertwined are allusions to pre-20th century Western art, African art, literature and music of many cultures, the political and artistic anarchy of Dada, and a multitude of other 20th century 'isms' that led from an explosive pictorial space to the flatness central to later modernist concerns. Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Expressionism and the fluctuation between abstraction and representation were essential to them all … His multi-faceted practice, including painting, drawing, collage, and photographic processes, adds to the complexity of the mix.10

Romare Bearden's extraordinary artistic achievements and sheer determination were recognised when MoMA held a retrospective of his work in 1971. Fine makes the important observation that collage, which concerns itself with the fracturing of space and form, was appropriate for an artist whose work addressed issues such as the prospect of nuclear war, black segregation in American society and the conflict in Vietnam, exacerbated by America's involvement. Segregation in various forms is central to Bearden's message. In the late 1960s, he began creating larger, more painterly collages in which the process of making is celebrated and colour is of paramount importance. Coloured papers and fabrics exude a cinematic quality and originality. Bearden said, 'I try to incorporate some of the techniques of documentary film or the camera eye into the art of painting ... Also involved is the interplay between the photograph and the actual painting and I constantly find myself adjusting my colour to the grey of the photograph so there won't be too much disparity in colour between them'.11 Bearden continued to use collage as his primary medium for the rest of his career, using fibreboard to support the heavier papers and fabrics of the larger works. He also worked with other media, including various printmaking techniques. Bearden's painterly collages and prints are quintessentially alive with his energy and commitment. His figures, both drawn and photographic, are manipulated with an intense vision and a sense of commitment to a better world. They have the energy of jazz music, the understatement and brevity of the artists with whom he identified from all periods of history and the sorrow and injustice of an individual forced to exist outside of mainstream culture. Bearden's art and life are essentially a courageous triumph over injustice and the supreme survival of humanist values and personal strength. They are a celebration of life itself.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Fine R. Romare Bearden: The Spaces Between. In: Fine R, Corlett ML, Francis J et al. The Art of Romare Bearden. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2003: 4.
2. Ibid: 8.
3. Ibid: 13.
4. Ibid: 22.
5. Ibid: 25.
6. Ibid: 27.
7. Ibid: 28.
8. Ibid: 29.
9. Ibid: 29-30.
10. Ibid: 31.
11. Ibid: 53.


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