Life in a collage

Different strokes

Life in a collage

Romare Bearden was one of the most distinguished American black visual artists of 20th century. Giridhar Khasnis writes about the many faces of the artist

During his lifetime, Romare Bearden (1912-1988) had a dozen solo museum exhibitions and participated in more than 100 group shows. In 1973, he was named Rockefeller Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In November 1977, The New Yorker devoted as many as 16 pages to profile his life story. In 1987, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan. That was not all. He received honorary doctorates from the Pratt Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Davidson College and Atlanta University, among others.

Yet for all his achievements, and even as he was recognised as “a central and important figure in 20th-century American art”, Bearden was not destined to attain the cult status as some of his contemporaries did. History books were rather unkind to this light-skinned multi-faceted African-American who produced some of the most interesting and complicated surfaces in modern art before succumbing to bone cancer at age 76.

“Bearden was one of the finest collagists of the 20th century and the most distinguished black visual artist America has so far produced,” wrote eminent art critic Robert Hughes in Time magazine. “He got left out of the history books because those who wrote them lacked the imagination to find a frame in which to put his work.”

Chronicling life

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and raised in Harlem, Bearden was the only child to college-educated and politically-active parents. His mother was the first president of the Negro Women’s Democratic Association, and New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a regional black newspaper. His father (who played piano) initially worked for the railroad and later became an inspector for New York City’s sanitation department.

Bearden started off as a political cartoonist in the 1930s and turned to painting literary, mythic, and religious themes in the 1940s, before embracing Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He began working on collages in earnest in 1963 and eventually became a master of the complex medium, which he employed to celebrate African-American heritage and culture. In the course of becoming one of the foremost chroniclers of life in 20th century America, he cut up photographs and magazines, newspapers and prints, before pasting and painting the pieces and shapes into powerful portraits of contemporary black life. 

Often intimate in size, monumental in colour, and saturated with silence and stillness, Bearden’s heavily pictorial collages were laden with themes and scenes from African-American life and history. Symbols of progress, adventure, hope, and encroachment highlighted the moods that were celebratory and humorous as they were tragic and poignant.  

Bearden’s art was also characterised by an evocation of journeys and partings, and a rich interweaving of metaphor and memory, informed by art historical tradition and life experience. Even as it steeped in a vibrant African-American cultural heritage, there was an unambiguous multi-layered association with and expression of the universal human condition.

Devoted as he was to his art, Bearden committed himself to many other realms of human activity. He was a social worker looking after gypsies in New York City. An eloquent spokesman on artistic and social issues of the day, he was a central figure of the Spiral collective (1963-65) which followed the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr as a national leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He actively participated in vigorous debates about the intersection of art, race, politics, and in particular, the definition of black art. As a respected scholar and writer, he authored numerous articles and books, including A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (co-authored with Harry Henderson).

When it came to his own art practice, Bearden never hesitated to accept influences from many sides — be it Renaissance, Dutch or Italian masters; Social Realism; Abstract Expressionism; or Cubism. While Johannes Vermeer was his artistic hero, he also idolised the likes of Henri Matisse, Pieter Brueghel, Pete Mondrian and Cubist masters, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Bearden showed remarkable ability to blend the artistic influences with his own personal experiences, and brought to light the sights, sounds and rituals of a burgeoning African-American middle class as they began to take place in a wider American society. “I work out of response and need to redefine the image of man in terms of the Negro experience I know best.”

Many dimensions

Music too played a vital role in his life and art. Having grown up in Harlem when it was the epicentre of the jazz universe, Bearden took constant inspiration and several titles for his paintings from jazz masterpieces. He enthusiastically acknowledged the relationship of jazz improvisation to his artistic practice: “I did take a great deal from this music — whose essence is one of great order and integrity — that I use substantially in my own painting. One important example is the concept of improvisation so fundamental to the jazz process.” For a period in the 1950s, he even kept away from painting and collages, and turned to music and poetry, publishing a number of songs with Fred Norman and Larry Douglas. “Seabreeze” (co-written by Bearden with Norman) was recorded by legendary vocalist Billy Eckstine, and is still considered a jazz classic.

There are two stories which give a hint to Bearden’s background and personality. The first one is about his white teacher in New York school who set him and the only other black student apart from the rest of her class saying that mathematics was too complicated for them; Bearden later got his degree in science (with mathematics) at New York University. The second story is about his friendship with Eugene Bailey, a sickly, handicapped child of a prostitute. Bearden never tired of telling how Bailey had in fact taught him to draw when he was just 12. Apart from creating an elegiac collage titled ‘Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene’, Bearden also wrote a touching poem about Bailey’s death.

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