Romare Bearden Biography
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 cultures—themes 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 explore—in terms of his own African-American experience—universal 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 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 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.
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." 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 Street—Uptown Looking Downtown," "Train Whistle Blues," and "The Savoy—Grand 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 Interior—Morning" (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 Interior—Morning" 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 Interior—Morning" 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.
(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.
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.
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.
"The Art of Romare Bearden," San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, www.sfmoma.org/bearden/index.html (March 9, 2005).
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