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Bearden, Romare

Romare Bearden

1912-1988

Artist

A master of technique best known for his collage and photomontage compositions, esteemed artist Romare Bearden consistently depicted African-American culture and experience in his work. His oeuvre reflects the influences of various art traditions and reveals themes common to many different culturesthemes of death, the family, religious ritual, and the beauty of natural landscapes. Bearden also touched on aspects of jazz and city life through his works, and he was noted for his portraits of women in their many roles: mothers, lovers, gardeners, conjurers, healers, and even prostitutes, as in the "Storyville" series of bordello scenes.

Collage, a term taken from a French word meaning to glue or assemble, was brought into the realm of modern European art by the Cubists, followers of an abstract, fragmented style of art. The collagist combines pieces of painted paper, pictures from newspapers and magazines, and colored paper into a distinctive piece of art. Bearden's style of photomontage is based on the collage method but involves photographs and techniques from film documentary.

In Germany immediately after World War I, the Dada artists emerged, overturning traditional values in art and developing the type of photomontage used by Bearden. One Dada artist in particular, Hannah Hoch, used fragments of photographs and pictures from magazines in her work. While Hoch's collages reflect a sense of discontinuity, Bearden's speak of the continuity of artistic tradition. Beginning in the 1960s, Bearden used collage and film documentary techniques to explorein terms of his own African-American experienceuniversal themes common to all cultures. As a New York magazine contributor noted, "In collage, Bearden found a way to speak to people who know something about art as well as to people who don't."

"Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987" was a major retrospective show containing nearly 150 works from Romare Bearden's half-century career in the visual arts. Beginning at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1991, the show traveled through 1993 to major museums in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and finally the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. In reviewing the exhibit, Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine, "Romare Beardenwas one of the finest collagists of the 20th century and the most distinguished black visual artist America has so far produced."

Other reviewers have been equally enthusiastic about Bearden's importance. Michael Brenson wrote in the New York Times that Bearden was "a remarkably complex and generous artist who should now be given the most concentrated consideration." A Newsweek critic suggested that "Bearden constructed a visual narrative of the black American experience that is finally the equal of the same epic tale told in music and literature." And twenty years earlier, Carroll Greene wrote in the exhibit catalog for Bearden's major exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art that his work was "an affirmation, a celebration, a victory of the human spirit over all the forces that would oppress it."

An only child, Romare Howard Bearden was born on September 2, 1912, in the house of his great-grandfather in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father played piano, and both his paternal grandfather and great-grandfather did paintings and drawings. The family moved to New York City when Bearden was three or four years old. His father, Richard Howard Bearden, worked as a sanitation inspector for the city's Department of Health. His mother, Bessye, the first president of the Negro Women's Democratic Association, served as New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a regional black newspaper.

Bearden attended various schools in New York, but he finished high school in 1929 in Pittsburgh, where his maternal grandmother lived. Although he had taken a few informal drawing lessons from a sickly boyhood friend in the mid-1920s, Bearden was not very involved with the arts in high school. Following his graduation, he played semiprofessional baseball for a short time in Boston. He then returned to New York in the early 1930s to attend college. Planning to enter medical school, he majored in mathematics at New York University, receiving his bachelor's degree in science. But Bearden's interest in cartooning was also renewed during his college years. He drew for the university's humor magazine NYU Medley, and by his senior year, he had become the magazine's art editor.

After graduating from college, Bearden went to the Art Students League in 1936 and 1937 to study with George Grosz, a German artist known for his satirical drawings and caricatures. He studied with Grosz for two years and took a studio at 33 West 125th Street to paint. Bearden realized at once that he did not want to imitate the works of white artists. He joined the 306 Group, a group of black artists that met at the studios of Henry Bannarn and Charles Alston. The 1930s were an exciting time for modern art, and Bearden was exposed to a range of influences. He was particularly interested in Cubism, Futurism, post-Impressionism, and Surrealism. While studying at the Art Students League, Bearden exhibited early figurative paintings at the Harlem YWCA and the Harlem Art Workshop.

By 1938, Bearden realized he couldn't live by painting alone, so he took a job in the Department of Social Services as a caseworker and painted in his spare time. Creating art that he could feel emotionally, he did a series of paintings largely on Southern themes executed on heavy brown wrapping paper, the least expensive material available. His work of the time was done in a Cubist style, featuring rich colors and simple, planar forms. Bearden had his first one-person show at Ad Bates's Harlem studio in 1940. In his statement for the show, Bearden wrote: "I believe that art is an expression of what people feel and want. In order for a painting to be 'good' two things are necessary: that there be a communion of belief and desire between artist and spectator, [and] that the artist be able to see and say something that enriches the fund of communicable feeling and the medium for expressing it."

Bearden was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and served until May of 1945. His first one-person show at a major New York gallery came in the fall of 1945 at the Samuel Kootz Gallery, where he showed regularly from 1945 to 1950. The show consisted of Bearden's "Passion of Christ" series, abstract paintings that serve to represent the history of human suffering. "He Is Risen" was acquired by New York's Museum of Modern Art, and the show received a favorable review in the New York Times.

At a Glance

Born Romare Howard Bearden on September 2, 1912, in Charlotte, NC (some sources give 1911 or 1914 as Beardon's year of birth, but the Register of Deeds in Charlotte, NC, lists his exact date of birth as September 2, 1912); died of bone cancer, March 12, 1988, in New York City; ashes taken to property on St. Martin, French West Indies; son of Richard Howard and Bessye (Johnson) Bearden; married Nanette Rohan (organizer of New York's Chamber Dance Company), c. 1954. Education : New York University, B.S., 1935; studied under George Grosz at the Art Students League in New York, 1936-37; studied art at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1950-51. Military Service : U.S. Army, 1942-45; served in all black 372nd Infantry Regiment.

Career : Artist. Department of Social Services, New York City, caseworker, 1938; worked and painted in New York for five years following World War II, showing with the Samuel Kootz Gallery; studied art in Paris, 1950-51; returned to New York, gave up painting briefly to compose music, but soon returned to the visual arts. Harlem Cultural Council, art director, beginning in 1964; Cinque Gallery, New York City, cofounder and director, beginning in 1969.

Awards : Award from National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1966, and American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1970; Ford Foundation grant, 1973; Medal of Arts, 1987.

After World War II, Bearden resumed his duties as caseworker. His paintings were increasingly abstract, a style that Newsweek called "a stained-glassbrand of cubism." Bearden's one-person shows continued at the Kootz Gallery, and he was regularly included in major group shows of contemporary American art, including those at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Literary influences were evident in his series of paintings based on works by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, French satirist Francois Rabelais, and ancient Greek poet Homer, and in 1948 he painted 16 variations on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

Perhaps it was a sense of alienation that caused Bearden to leave the United States for Europe in 1950. Under the GI Bill, he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne for two years. While there, he met modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernan Leger, as well as Jean Helion and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. When he returned to New York, he gave up painting and devoted himself to writing songs. According to some sources, he may have suffered a breakdown in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, he worked his way back into painting by studying and copying the works of old masters as well as those of modern artists like Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Around 1954 Bearden took a studio above the Apollo Theater and created abstract paintings that were heavily influenced by Chinese painting. He developed an interest in Chinese techniques, studied them thoroughly, and recorded his involvement with the tradition of Chinese painting in a book, The Painter's Mind, which he wrote with his friend and fellow artist, Carl Holty. From 1956 to 1961, Bearden's paintings grew increasingly personal in nature. An Artnews reviewer described a 1960 show of Bearden's large, lyrical abstractions by saying, "Thinned, cool-colored paint is splattered, splotched, blotted and matched to create a romantic and controlled aura of corrosion, growth and agitation."

The early 1960s were another period of transition for Bearden, this time from painting to collage. He executed a series of black and white compositions, experimenting with spatial anomalies and disjuncture. In 1963, a group of black artists began meeting in his Harlem studio. Calling themselves the Spiral Group, they sought to define their roles as black artists within the context of the growing civil rights movement.

As described in Romare Bearden: Origins and Progressions, the artist concentrated on "organizing a group project that would express or symbolize some kind of consensus and unity; so he proposed that the group work on a communal collage." The project served to bring a new focus to Bearden's own works, combining photo enlargements and torn-paper techniques in the artistic rendering of childhood memories. In 1964, he began a series of collages based on black urban life, with the overall title "The Prevalence of Ritual." In so doing, Bearden made another transition within collage from abstraction to Cubist figuration.

Bearden's 1964 collages were inspired by techniques of film documentary. He used projected images, abrupt transitions of scale, and cutouts of figures and faces. His subjects included life in Harlem, memories of the rural South, and jazz musicians. Individual titles included "Baptism," "Tidings," "The Conjure Woman," "The Funeral," "The StreetUptown Looking Downtown," "Train Whistle Blues," and "The SavoyGrand Terrace Ballroom." An important turning point in Bearden's career occurred when art dealer Arne Ekstrom selected his collages for a show at Cordier & Ekstrom. Included in the show were Bearden's larger photomontages, all done in black and white.

In the collages of the later 1960s, Bearden's colors became richer and his patterns more decorative. He introduced patterns of patchwork quilts, photographs, and pieces of cloth in some works. A growing public interest led to commissions for posters, a mural in Times Square (now removed), and covers for magazines like Time, Fortune, New York Times Magazine, and TV Guide. He had a solo show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1966, and his work was becoming a major statement in American art.

Analyses of specific collages reveal not only Bearden's mastery of the technique, but also the influences of different art traditions. "Blue InteriorMorning" (1968), for example, was the subject of a School Arts review and analysis for the purpose of teaching art appreciation. The reviewer appreciated Bearden's collages as "images of cultural continuity in the voice of his African-American heritage," noting, "They tell us of places and events, public and private rituals and activities from his own memories and personal experience."

"Blue InteriorMorning" shows a family engaged in private domestic rituals and interactions. "The people are portrayed not as isolated individuals, but as interdependent and interconnected with one another," explained the School Arts critic. The figures in the collage are depicted in a way that recalls African art traditions, in which the frontal and profile views are done with the head relatively large to the body and the hands large and prominent. Juxtaposed fragments create an African rhythm or polyrhythm through the interplay of stylized and naturalistic forms. The work also reveals the influences of modern European art, especially Cubism and modern abstract art. The use of geometric forms suggests Bearden's love of jazz and his interest in the African-American tradition of quilting.

"Blue InteriorMorning" is actually a photomontage. Bearden has recombined parts of photographs that were originally part of some other image, thus speaking of memory and continuity. As noted in the School Arts analysis, "These collaged elements bring their own sense of history to this image." The New York Times art critic reaffirmed this point in commenting on another Bearden piece: "In a work like Bearden's "Three Folk Musicians" (1967), heads are pieced together from different people, often different in age, cultures, and style, and drawn from many sources. All of Bearden's men and women carry within them the memory or the actual presence of others."

In his widely acclaimed "Prevalence of Ritual" retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1971, many of the works displayed were collage paintings. Writing about the collages in The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, M. Bunch Washington found in Bearden's work a truer vision of African-American social reality than ever before: "The social reality, the deceptive, crimson, and pregnant social reality of the sixties, can be seen clearly through these eyes. The eyes of a people and a man unique in the intense, deeply integral quality of their humanity, and, lest we forget in the present din, unique in their suffering, their power."

Bearden was more than a political propagandist, but it is interesting to note that he studied art in the 1930s, a time when social realism was a major force in modern American painting. The social turbulence and civil rights movement of the 1960s seemed to have served as a catalyst for Bearden's art, enabling him to find his truest subjects and the means to render them.

The primary subject of the last 25 years of Bearden's art was the life and culture of African-Americans. His work covered rural themes based on his memories of the South as well as urban life and jazz. In the 1980s, he produced a large body of work featuring compelling images of women. For many years, he spent time annually with his wife on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, adding tropical images to his body of work. According to New York magazine, "He discovered a new empathy with Matisse and with the humming colors and overheated emotions of hot climates."

In 1986, Bearden was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts to celebrate their centennial. He executed a mosaic mural, done in mosaic glass, of approximately 10 x 13' and titled "Quilting Time." The work is typical of Bearden in that it is rooted in his memories of his Southern childhood and depicts an important aspect of African-American culture. The brightly colored mosaic shows a group of women making a quilt. The artist's statement on this work states, in part, "It may have come to me in selecting a quilting bee (as these affairs were often called) as my subject that the technique had something to do with my own use of the medium of collage. After all, working in collage was precisely what the ladies were doing."

Bearden's use of mosaic tile late in his career developed from his use of the technique of building his forms with very small pieces of paper, a technique called tesserae. Since the paper was so fragile, Bearden began using mosaic tile for his large public artworks.

Bearden received the 1987 Medal of Arts from President Reagan. Less than a year later, he died in New York of bone cancer. In his will, he stipulated his desire to be cremated and his ashes taken to St. Martin in the French West Indies. He left his estate to his wife, Nanette, and also set up a trust fund for the Romare Bearden Foundation to aid in the education and training of talented art students.

Bearden's art has survived him well. The largest retrospective of his works was organized by the National Gallery of Art in 2003. The exhibit included a comprehensive collection of his art, from his most famous collages and photomontages to his lesser-known watercolor, gouache, and oil paintings, illustrations, and his only known sculpture. The exhibit toured the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 2004 and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2005. The retrospective did more than simply exhibit Bearden's works, but educated viewers in his technique that came to be called "visual jazz," or artwork that is like music in the techniques used to create it and its visual affect. Recorded commentaries by notable musician Wynton Marsalis and artist David Driskell accompany some of Bearden's works in the exhibit. Both a scholarly book by the exhibition's curator, Ruth Fine, and a children's book by Jan Greenberg were published in 2003 to accompany the retrospective. Bearden had aspired, as quoted by Insight on the News, "to establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic." The comprehensive exhibition of 130 of his works provides ample proof that Bearden succeeded in turning his knowledge of the African-American experience into art.

Selected writings

(With Carl Holty) The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, Crown, 1969.

(With Harry Brinton Henderson) Six Black Masters of American Art, Doubleday, 1972.

Sources

Books

Bearden, Romare, and Carl Holty, The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, Crown, 1969.

Fine, Ruth, The Art of Romare Bearden, Abrams/National Gallery of Art, 2004.

Greenberg, Jan, Collage of Memories (children's book), Abrams, 2003.

Greene, Carroll, Jr., Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, Museum of Modern Art, 1971.

Patton, Sharon F., Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987, Studio Museum in Harlem/Oxford University Press, 1991.

Romare Bearden: Origins and Progressions, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1986.

Schwartzman, Myron, Romare Bearden: His Life and Art, Abrams, 1990.

Washington, M. Bunch, The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, Abrams, 1973.

Periodicals

American Artist, September 2004, January 2005.

Art in America, February 1987.

Artnews, February 1960; Summer 1988.

Insight on the News, December 8, 2003.

Instructor, September 1989.

Nation, December 6, 2004.

Newsweek, April 29, 1991.

New York, May 13, 1991.

New York Times, April 19, 1991.

School Arts, January 1990.

Time, June 10, 1991.

On-line

"The Art of Romare Bearden," San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, www.sfmoma.org/bearden/index.html (March 9, 2005).

David Bianco and

Sara Pendergast

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Bearden, Romare 1912–1988

Romare Bearden 19121988

Artist

At a Glance

Begins Art Career in the 1930s

1940s: One-person Shows and Growing Recognition

1950s: New Influences

1960s: A Black Artist and the Civil Rights Movement

1970s and 1980s: The Prevalence of Ritual

Selected writings

Sources

A master of technique best known for his collage and photomontage compositions, esteemed artist Romare Bearden consistently depicted African-American culture and experience in his work. His oeuvre reflects the influences of various art traditions and reveals themes common to many different culturesthemes of death, the family, religious ritual, and the beauty of natural landscapes. Bearden also touched on aspects of jazz and city life through his works, and he was noted for his portraits of women in their many roles: mothers, lovers, gardeners, conjurers, healers, and even prostitutes, as in the Storyville series of bordello scenes.

Collage, a term taken from a French word meaning to glue or assemble, was brought into the realm of modern European art by the Cubists, followers of an abstract, fragmented style of art. The collagist combines pieces of painted paper, pictures from newspapers and magazines, and colored paper into a distinctive piece of art. Beardens style of photomontage is based on the collage method but involves photographs and techniques from film documentary.

In Germany immediately after World War I, the Dada artists emerged, overturning traditional values in art and developing the type of photomontage used by Bearden. One Dada artist in particular, Hannah Hoch, used fragments of photographs and pictures from magazines in her work. While Hochs collages reflect a sense of discontinuity, Beardens speak of the continuity of artistic tradition. Beginning in the 1960s, Bearden used collage and film documentary techniques to explorein terms of his own African-American experienceuniversal themes common to all cultures. As a New York magazine contributor noted, In collage, Bearden found a way to speak to people who know something about art as well as to people who dont.

Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987 is a major retrospective show containing nearly 150 works from Romare Beardens half-century career in the visual arts. Beginning at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1991, the show travels through 1993 to major museums in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and finally the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. In reviewing the exhibit, Robert

At a Glance

Born Romare Howard Bearden, September 2, 1912, in Charlotte, NC (some sources give 1911 or 1914 as Beardons year of birth, but the Register of Deeds in Charlotte, NC, lists his exact date of birth as September 2, 1912); died of bone cancer, March 12, 1988, in New York City; ashes taken to property on St. Martin, French West Indies; son of Richard Howard and Bessye (Johnson) Bearden; married Nanette Rohan (organizer of New Yorks Chamber Dance Company), c. 1954. Education: New York University, B.S., 1935; studied under George Grosz at the Art Students League in New York, 1936-37; studied art at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1950-51.

Artist, Department of Social Services, New York City, caseworker, 1938; worked and painted in New York for five years following World War II, showing with the Samuel Kootz Gallery; studied art in Paris, 1950-51; returned to New York, gave up painting briefly to compose music, but soon returned to the visual arts. Harlem Cultural Council, art director, beginning in 1964; Cinque Gallery, New York City, cofounder and director, beginning in 1969. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-45; served in all black 372nd Infantry Regiment.

Awards: Award from National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1966, and American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1970; Ford Foundation grant, 1973; Medal of Arts, 1987.

Hughes wrote in Time magazine, Romare Bearden was one of the finest collagists of the 20th century and the most distinguished black visual artist America has so far produced.

Other reviewers have been equally enthusiastic about Beardens importance. Michael Brenson wrote in the New York Times that Bearden was a remarkably complex and generous artist who should now be given the most concentrated consideration. A Newsweek critic suggested that Bearden constructed a visual narrative of the black American experience that is finally the equal of the same epic tale told in music and literature. And twenty years earlier, Carroll Greene wrote in the exhibit catalog for Beardens major exhibition at New Yorks Museum of Modern Art that his work was an affirmation, a celebration, a victory of the human spirit over all the forces that would oppress it.

An only child, Romare Howard Bearden was born on September 2, 1912, in the house of his great-grandfather in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father played piano, and both his paternal grandfather and great-grandfather did paintings and drawings. The family moved to New York City when Bearden was three or four years old. His father, Richard Howard Bearden, worked as a sanitation inspector for the citys Department of Health. His mother, Bessye, the first president of the Negro Womens Democratic Association, served as New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a regional black newspaper.

Bearden attended various schools in New York, but he finished high school in 1929 in Pittsburgh, where his maternal grandmother lived. Although he had taken a few informal drawing lessons from a sickly boyhood friend in the mid-1920s, Bearden wasnt very involved with the arts in high school. Following his graduation, he played semiprofessional baseball for a short time in Boston. He then returned to New York in the early 1930s to attend college. Planning to enter medical school, he majored in mathematics at New York University, receiving his bachelors degree in science. But Beardens interest in cartooning was also renewed during his college years. He drew for the universitys humor magazine NYU Medley, and by his senior year, he had become the magazines art editor.

Begins Art Career in the 1930s

After graduating from college, Bearden went to the Art Students League in 1936 and 1937 to study with George Grosz, a German artist known for his satirical drawings and caricatures. He studied with Grosz for two years and took a studio at 33 West 125th Street to paint. Bearden realized at once that he didnt want to imitate the works of white artists. He joined the 306 Group, a group of black artists that met at the studios of Henry Bannam and Charles Alston. The 1930s were an exciting time for modern art, and Bearden was exposed to a range of influences. He was particularly interested in Cubism, Futurism, post-Impressionism, and Surrealism. While studying at the Art Students League, Bearden exhibited early figurative paintings at the Harlem YWCA and the Harlem Art Workshop.

By 1938, Bearden realized he couldnt live by painting alone, so he took a job in the Department of Social Services as a caseworker and painted in his spare time. Creating art that he could feel emotionally, he did a series of paintings largely on Southern themes executed on heavy brown wrapping paper, the least expensive material available. His work of the time was done in a Cubist style, featuring rich colors and simple, planar forms.

1940s: One-person Shows and Growing Recognition

Bearden had his first one-person show at Ad Batess Harlem studio in 1940. In his statement for the show, Bearden wrote: I believe that art is an expression of what people feel and want. In order for a painting to be good two things are necessary: that there be a communion of belief and desire between artist and spectator, [and] that the artist be able to see and say something that enriches the fund of communicable feeling and the medium for expressing it.

Bearden was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and served until May of 1945. His first one-person show at a major New York gallery came in the fall of 1945 at the Samuel Kootz Gallery, where he showed regularly from 1945 to 1950. The show consisted of Beardens Passion of Christ series, abstract paintings that serve to represent the history of human suffering. He Is Risen was acquired by New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, and the show received a favorable review in the New York Times.

After World War II, Bearden resumed his duties as caseworker. His paintings were increasingly abstract, a style that Newsweek called a stained-glass brand of cubism. Beardens one-person shows continued at the Kootz Gallery, and he was regularly included in major group shows of contemporary American art, including those at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Literary influences were evident in his series of paintings based on works by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, French satirist Francois Rabelais, and ancient Greek poet Homer, and in 1948 he painted 16 variations on Homers Iliad and Odyssey.

1950s: New Influences

Perhaps it was a sense of alienation that caused Bearden to leave the United States for Europe in 1950. Under the GI Bill, he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne for two years. While there, he met modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernan Leger, as well as Jean Helion and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. When he returned to New York, he gave up painting and devoted himself to writing songs. According to some sources, he may have suffered a breakdown in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, he worked his way back into painting by studying and copying the works of old masters as well as those of modern artists like Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Around 1954 Bearden took a studio above the Apollo Theater and created abstract paintings that were heavily influenced by Chinese painting. He developed an interest in Chinese techniques, studied them thoroughly, and recorded his involvement with the tradition of Chinese painting in a book, The Painters Mind, which he wrote with his friend and fellow artist, Carl Holty. From 1956 to 1961, Beardens paintings grew increasingly personal in nature. An Artnews reviewer described a 1960 show of Beardens large, lyrical abstractions by saying, Thinned, cool-colored paint is splattered, splotched, blotted and matched to create a romantic and controlled aura of corrosion, growth and agitation.

1960s: A Black Artist and the Civil Rights Movement

The early 1960s were another period of transition for Bearden, this time from painting to collage. He executed a series of black and white compositions, experimenting with spatial anomalies and disjunctures. In 1963, a group of black artists began meeting in his Harlem studio. Calling themselves the Spiral Group, they sought to define their roles as black artists within the context of the growing civil rights movement.

As described in Romare Bearden: Origins and Progressions, the artist concentrated on organizing a group project that would express or symbolize some kind of consensus and unity; so he proposed that the group work on a communal collage. The project served to bring a new focus to Beardens own works, combining photo enlargements and torn-paper techniques in the artistic rendering of childhood memories. In 1964, he began a series of collages based on black urban life, with the overall title The Prevalence of Ritual. In so doing, Bearden made another transition within collage from abstraction to Cubist figuration.

Beardens 1964 collages were inspired by techniques of film documentary. He used projected images, abrupt transitions of scale, and cutouts of figures and faces. His subjects included life in Harlem, memories of the rural South, and jazz musicians. Individual titles included Baptism, Tidings, The Conjure Woman, The Funeral, The StreetUptown Looking Downtown, Train Whistle Blues, and The SavoyGrand Terrace Ballroom. An important turning point in Beardens career occurred when art dealer Arne Ekstrom selected his collages for a show at Cordier & Ekstrom. Included in the show were Beardens larger photomontages, all done in black and white.

In the collages of the later 1960s, Beardens colors became richer and his patterns more decorative. He introduced patterns of patchwork quilts, photographs, and pieces of cloth in some works. A growing public interest led to commissions for posters, a mural in Times Square (now removed), and covers for magazines like Time, Fortune, New York Times Magazine, and TV Guide. He had a solo show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1966, and his work was becoming a major statement in American art.

Analyses of specific collages reveal not only Beardens mastery of the technique, but also the influences of different art traditions. Blue InteriorMorning (1968), for example, was the subject of a School Arts review and analysis for the purpose of teaching art appreciation. The reviewer appreciated Beardens collages as images of cultural continuity in the voice of his African-American heritage, noting, They tell us of places and events, public and private rituals and activities from his own memories and personal experience.

Blue InteriorMorning shows a family engaged in private domestic rituals and interactions. The people are portrayed not as isolated individuals, but as interdependent and interconnected with one another, explained the School Arts critic. The figures in the collage are depicted in a way that recalls African art traditions, in which the frontal and profile views are done with the head relatively large to the body and the hands large and prominent. Juxtaposed fragments create an African rhythm or polyrhythm through the interplay of stylized and naturalistic forms. The work also reveals the influences of modern European art, especially Cubism and modern abstract art. The use of geometric forms suggests Beardens love of jazz and his interest in the African-American tradition of quilting.

Blue InteriorMorning is actually a photomontage. Bearden has recombined parts of photographs that were originally part of some other image, thus speaking of memory and continuity. As noted in the School Arts analysis, These collaged elements bring their own sense of history to this image. The New York Times art critic reaffirmed this point in commenting on another Bearden piece: In a work like Beardens Three Folk Musicians (1967), heads are pieced together from different people, often different in age, cultures, and style, and drawn from many sources. All of Beardens men and women carry within them the memory or the actual presence of others.

1970s and 1980s: The Prevalence of Ritual

In his widely acclaimed Prevalence of Ritual retrospective at New Yorks Museum of Modern Art in 1971, many of the works displayed were collage paintings. Writing about the collages in The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, M. Bunch Washington found in Beardens work a truer vision of African-American social reality than ever before: The social reality, the deceptive, crimson, and pregnant social reality of the sixties, can be seen clearly through these eyes. The eyes of a people and a man unique in the intense, deeply integral quality of their humanity, and, lest we forget in the present din, unique in their suffering, their power.

Bearden was more than a political propagandist, but it is interesting to note that he studied art in the 1930s, a time when social realism was a major force in modern American painting. The social turbulence and civil rights movement of the 1960s seemed to have served as a catalyst for Beardens art, enabling him to find his truest subjects and the means to render them.

The primary subject of the last 25 years of Beardens art was the life and culture of African-Americans. His work covered rural themes based on his memories of the South as well as urban life and jazz. In the 1980s, he produced a large body of work featuring compelling images of women. For many years, he spent time annually with his wife on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, adding tropical images to his body of work. According to New York magazine, He discovered a new empathy with Matisse and with the humming colors and overheated emotions of hot climates.

In 1986, Bearden was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts to celebrate their centennial. He executed a mosaic mural, done in mosaic glass, of approximately 10 x 13 and titled Quilting Time. The work is typical of Bearden in that it is rooted in his memories of his Southern childhood and depicts an important aspect of African-American culture. The brightly colored mosaic shows a group of women making a quilt. The artists statement on this work states, in part, It may have come to me in selecting a quilting bee (as these affairs were often called) as my subject that the technique had something to do with my own use of the medium of collage. After all, working in collage was precisely what the ladies were doing.

Beardens use of mosaic tile late in his career developed from his use of the technique of building his forms with very small pieces of paper, a technique called tesserae. Since the paper was so fragile, Bearden began using mosaic tile for his large public artworks.

Bearden received the 1987 Medal of Arts from President Reagan. Less than a year later, he died in New York of bone cancer. In his will, he stipulated his desire to be cremated and his ashes taken to St. Martin in the French West Indies. He left his estate to his wife, Nanette, and also set up a trust fund for the Romare Bearden Foundation to aid in the education and training of talented art students.

Selected writings

(With Carl Holty) The Painters Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, Crown, 1969.

(With Harry Brinton Henderson) Six Black Masters of American Art, Doubleday, 1972.

Sources

Books

Bearden, Romare, and Carl Holty, The Painters Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, Crown, 1969.

Greene, Carroll, Jr., Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, Museum of Modern Art, 1971.

Patton, Sharon F., Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden, 1940-1987, Studio Museum in Harlem/Oxford University Press, 1991.

Romare Bearden: Origins and Progressions, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1986.

Schwartzman, Myron, Romare Bearden: His Life and Art, Abrams, 1990.

Washington, M. Bunch, The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, Abrams, 1973.

Periodicals

Art in America, February 1987.

Artnews, February 1960; Summer 1988.

Instructor, September 1989.

Newsweek, April 29, 1991.

New York, May 13, 1991.

New York Times, April 19, 1991.

School Arts, January 1990.

Time, June 10, 1991.

David Bianco

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Bearden, Romare

Romare Bearden (rōmâr bĬr´dən), 1911–88, American painter and collagist, b. Charlotte, N.C. Bearden grew up in Harlem and studied at New York Univ. and the Art Students League, New York City. In his work Bearden attempted to come to terms with and universalize the experience of African Americans. Although his early work involved religious themes, his later production showed a greater connection with jazz and its relation to the art of collage, which beginning in the early 1960s became his most important mode of expression. An extremely prolific artist who created some 2,000 works during his long career, Bearden is also noted for his prints in a variety of media, e.g., the lithographs in "Jazz Series" (1979). In the 1960s he was a founder of the Cinque Gallery, which was intended to help young artists, and in 1963 the Spiral Group, which aided African-American artists.

See biography by J. Greenberg (2003); M. Schwartzman, Romare Bearden, His Life and Art (1990); R. Fine, ed., The Art of Romare Bearden (2003); R. J. Powell, et al., Conjuring Bearden (2006).

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Bearden, Romare

Bearden, Romare

September2, 1912
March 12, 1988


In the last twenty-five years of artist Romare Bearden's life, collage was his principle medium. Through that medium, relying on memory, he recorded the rites of African-American life in all their historical and ceremonial complexity. In so doing he joined the ranks of Picasso, Matisse, and Miró, artists who transformed collage into a quintessentially twentieth-century language. Working with a medium that by its very nature is fragmented and heterogeneous, where reality and illusion hang in a precarious balance, Bearden, as his friend the writer Ralph Ellison once noted in Romare Bearden: Paintings and Projections (1968), captures the sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals, telescoping of time and surreal blending of styles, values, hopes, and dreams that characterize much of African American history.

Fred Howard Romare Bearden was a child of privilege. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the home of his great-grandparents, Rosa and Henry Kennedy. Former slaves, the Kennedys had become prosperous landowners, and Bearden spent the early years of his life in a spacious Victorian-style frame house surrounded by doting great-grandparents and grandparents. In spite of their comfortable life, however, Bearden's college-educated parents, Bessye and Howard, were dissatisfied with the limitations of the Jim Crow South. On the eve of World War I, like hundreds of thousands of black Americans throughout the South, they migrated north.

After traveling to Canada, Bessye and Howard finally settled in Harlem. Harlem, in the years following World

War I, was the black cultural capital of the world, the home of the New Negro movement, the site of the Harlem Renaissance. A flowering of poetry, painting, and music that marked the African American's first efforts to define himself as a distinctive cultural entity within the larger American culture, the Harlem Renaissance proved to be a rich crucible for Bearden.

Bessye, Bearden's beautiful and dynamic mother who was a New York editor for the Chicago Defender and a political organizer, was at the center of this cultural activity. Her Harlem apartments were always filled with writers and intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as painters Aaron Douglas and Charles Alston. Musicians, too, were part of Bearden's circle, and young Romy, as he was called, was surrounded by such exciting jazz musicians and composers as Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, and Duke Ellington. Together, Bessye and Howard, who worked for the Department of Health, provided their only child with a remarkable upbringing.

During the summers Bearden often visited his great-grandparents and grandparents in Mecklenberg, New York, a place that became a veritable paradise in his mind. During his high school years he lived in Pittsburgh with his maternal grandmother, Carrie Banks, who ran a boardinghouse for steelworkers. Like Charlotte and Harlem, Pittsburgh became part of a rich inventory of images for Bearden's mature art.

Bearden came of age as an artist during the depression. While in high school, he met the successful black cartoonist E. Simms Campbell. Campbell's success inspired Bearden to try his hand at cartooning. From 1931 to 1935 he did editorial cartoons for the Baltimore Afro-American and drawings for Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. After short stays at Lincoln University and Boston University, he enrolled at New York University, where in 1935 he received a B.S. in education. He continued cartooning at NYU, contributing to the university's humor magazine, The Medley.

After he graduated, Bearden became interested in inserting a social message into his cartoons, which led him, as he said, "to the works of Daumier, Forain, and Käthe Kollwitz, to the Art Students League and to George Grosz." Grosz, a German satirist whose visual commentary on postWorld War I society was unforgiving, instilled in Bearden the lifelong habit of studying the artists of the past even as he was trying to make contemporary social commentary. Bearden's stay at the Art Students League was his only formal art school training.

Formal training, however, was amply augmented for Bearden by the Harlem art scene of the 1930s and 1940s. In spite of the depression, Harlem boasted a thriving community of visual artists. Many, supported by the New Deal's federally funded Works Project Administration (WPA), worked on public art projects, taught, or worked on WPA easel projects. They were supported by a network of exhibition spaces and art centers: the federally supported art center at West 125th Street, sculptor Augusta Savage's art garage, Ad Bates's exhibiting space at 306 West 141st Street, local libraries, the YMCA, and upscale living rooms and salons. Although Bearden did not qualify for the WPA because his well-to-do parents supported him, he was active nonetheless in artistic activities uptown. He was one of the artists who organized uptown artists into the Harlem Artists Guild, and he wrote articles for Opportunity, the magazine of the Urban League, on black American art and social issues.

More important, Bearden and his artist friendsNorman Lewis, Roy DeCarava, and Ernest Crichlow were devotees of jazz. They regularly made the rounds of nightclubs and cabarets where they heard firsthand the compositionally complex, innovative music. Though it was many years before Bearden was able to recognize the aesthetic importance of jazz to his paintinginspired by his mentor, Stuart Davisthe music became as important to him as the painting of the masters he studied with George Grosz.

During this time, 1937 to 1940, Bearden produced his first paintings, gouaches on brown paper, eighteen of which were exhibited along with some drawings at his first solo show held at Ad Bates's place on West 141st Street. Scenes of black life in Charlotte and on the streets of Pittsburgh and Harlem, these early paintings, with their terracotta colors, bulky figures, and narrative, almost illustrational quality, were painted in the then fashionable social realist style.

Bearden's uptown art community disintegrated with the coming of World War II and the dismantling of the WPA. Bearden enlisted in the army, continued to exhibit, and came to the attention of Caresse Crosby, the flamboyant founder and publisher with her husband of Black Sun Press. Crosby exhibited Bearden's works at the G Place Gallery in Washington and introduced him to gallery dealer Samuel M. Kootz. Kootz invited Bearden to exhibit, and from 1945 until 1948 Bearden showed there along with such other leading avant-garde painters as Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, Carl Holty, and Byron Browne. During this period Bearden painted oils filled with abstract figures. His works were largely derived from epic literary sourcesthe Bible, Rabelais, Homer, García Lorca. The style, boldly drawn contours filled with vibrant stained-glass color, was derivative as well, reminiscent of analytical cubism.

During his time at the Kootz gallery, Bearden grew intellectually restless. He found the direction of his colleagueswho came to be known as abstract expressionistsunsatisfying, and he left the country in 1950 to study in Paris on the GI bill. Though he enrolled at the Sorbonne, Bearden spent most of his time enjoying the city. When he returned in 1951, he found that he had lost interest in painting and took up songwriting. Without painting, however, he was disconnected. He had a nervous breakdown and recovered with the help of Nanette Rohan, whom he married in 1954.

With Bearden's recovery came a return to painting. To spur his return, he systematically copied the old masters, actually making large photostatic copies and tracing them. Starting with Duccio and Masaccio, he worked his way into the present, tracing Vermeer, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Matisse, and Picasso. Bearden's copying taught him

well, and with Carl Holty he wrote a book on space, color, and composition entitled The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting (1969). Once he had relearned painting, Bearden began to paint large abstract expressionist oils with mythopoeic titles such as Blue Is the Smoke of War, White the Bones of Men (1960).

Bearden's most noteworthy work did not come until he was over fifty years old. Galvanized by the civil rights movement, Bearden, as he had done in the 1930s, organized a group of black artists that took the name Spiral. The group wanted to do something to celebrate the movement, and Bearden thought that perhaps a group work, a collage, might be a vehicle. The group, however, was not interested, but he found himself engaged by the medium. As Bearden worked on these collages, allowing images of Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Harlem to flood his memory, he captured the turbulence of the time with spatial distortions, abrupt juxtapositions, and vivid imagery.

Bearden's collages made use of a visual language seldom seen in American painting. His collages were populated by conjure women, trains, guitar players, birds, masked figures, winged creatures, and intense ritualistic activities: baptism, women bathing, families eating together at their dinner tables, funerals, parades, nightclub scenes. His representative works contain scenes of enduring ceremonies underscoring the beauty and densely complex cultural lineage of African-American life. Notable works include Watching the Good Trains Go By (1964); At Connie's Inn (1974), one of his many collages on the theme of jazz; Maudell Sleet's Magic Garden (1978) from his autobiographical series; Calypso's Sacred Grove (1977) from his series based on Homer's Odyssey; and lushly colored, late works such as In a Green Shade (1984). Ralph Ellison (1968) referred to Bearden's images as "abiding rituals and ceremonies of affirmation." Bearden invented his own phrasethe "Prevalence of Ritual"to underscore the continuity of a culture's ceremonies, marking the traditions and values that connect one generation to another.

In his earliest works Bearden painted genre scenes, but in his mature work he pierced the skin of those scenes to explore the interior lives of black people. His first collages were photomontages, that is, photographic blow-ups of collages. After a year he abandoned that technique and, as his collages matured, began to use color more sensuously, creating lush landscapes with layers upon layers of cut paper, photographs, and paint. By the time of his death in 1988, Bearden had won virtually every prize and accolade imaginable, including the Medal of Honor, countless honorary doctorates, cover stories in the leading art magazines, and several retrospectives of his work, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971.

See also Art; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Decarava, Roy; Douglas, Aaron; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Ellington, Edward Kennedy "Duke"; Ellison, Ralph; Harlem Renaissance; Hurston, Zora Neale; Jim Crow; New Negro; Painting and Sculpture; Robeson, Paul

Bibliography

Bearden, Romare. The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting. New York: Crown, 1969.

Bearden, Romare. "Rectangular Structure in My Montage." Leonardo 2 (1969): 1119.

Campbell, Mary Schmidt. "Romare Bearden: Rites and Riffs." Art in America (December 1981): 134142.

Ellison, Ralph. Romare Bearden: Paintings and Projections. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968.

Fine, Ruth. The Art of Romare Bearden. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2003.

Greenburg, Jan. Romare Bearden: A Collage of Memories. New York: Abrams, 2003.

Schwartzman, Myron. Romare Bearden: His Life and Art. New York: Abrams, 1990.

mary schmidt campbell (1996)
Updated bibliography

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