The art of Romare Bearden

American song: the art of Romare Bearden

Brian Gilmore

In the summer of 1963, the artist Romare Bearden, as a member of the New York-based African American artistic collective Spiral, suggested that the group collaborate on a collage to make a statement on the civil rights movement. The March on Washington was to be held that summer, and the group felt a need to speak to the moment. The members of Spiral didn’t take to Bearden’s suggestion. But Bearden, a rising star in the American art world at the time, wasn’t discouraged.

Over the next few months, he created a series of small-scale collages that would serve as his own personal statement. He used clippings and snippets from magazines such as Life and Ebony and produced art that portrayed African American life as never before.

“They seemed to capture the times,” as Bearden’s biographer, Myron Schwartzman, put it in the film The Art of Romare Bearden.

Bearden also had the collages photographed and blown up large scale in black and white on Photostat paper. These photo-montages eventually became known as Projections. When the collage-based paintings were discovered the following year and placed in an exhibition in New York, Romare Bearden, then in his early fifties, was suddenly a major artist.

Now, forty years after Bearden embarked on that remarkable creative journey, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has introduced an exhibition of his work. The exhibition, “The Art of Romare Bearden,” which opened on September 14, 2003, includes 130 pieces of work spanning fifty years. There are paintings, drawings, permanent murals, and sculpture. Over the next few years, “The Art of Romare Bearden” will travel to Dallas, New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

“I would hope within the context of the art world that his presence will take on the luster that it deserves,” says Ruth Fine, curator of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Fine chose the pieces from more than 1,500 works of art. She traveled all over the country for several years, meeting with collectors and dealers, and speaking with many who privately own Bearden’s great works.

Without being overtly political or committed to wasteful sloganeering, Romare Bearden made universal statements about American life. Like poet Sterling Brown and jazz composer Duke Ellington, he created art about real people in America living their lives. He embraced what Fine describes as “the whole of human culture as he understood it” and gave particular attention and love toward the community he belonged to–Black America. That community is the key source of his creative power.

Bearden was born in 1911 in rural Charlotte, North Carolina. His family, like thousands of others, migrated to New York City to the capital of Black America at the time–Harlem. He came of age during the Harlem Renaissance in a family that associated with the best of Black America: the poet Langston Hughes, the jazz genius Duke Ellington, the renaissance man Paul Robeson, and the dean of all African American intellectuals, W. E. B. Du Bois.

Bearden took to art early on and started out drawing political cartoons. After college in the 1930s, he was soon expressing the specific nuances of African American culture and life on canvas,

His subject matter was distinct: the South of sacred cultural rituals, emotional religious customs, and folklife; the North of tough streets and the spread of jazz. And everywhere, he focused on the constant struggle for equality.

Bearden’s art was informed by his own life. When he was very young, he traveled back and forth between Charlotte and New York City visiting relatives. As a young adult, he worked at the New York City Department of Social Services, interacting with everyday people. He also lived in Pittsburgh, and he spent time in Paris where he hung out with the black expatriate crowd. He fused it all into a dynamic artistic manifesto, akin to jazz. Using the techniques of the European masters, he created art that had its own voice.

He “made his art sing on canvas,” Myron Schwartzman writes in the book Romare Bearden: Celebrating the Victory. “He created the visual definition of jazz.”

In a tribute to Bearden in The Washington Post in March 1988 following his death, Paul Richard wrote that there is “glinting and singing” in Bearden’s art. “His pieced-together pictures, with their bluesy subjects and their sudden jagged rhythms, always make one think of melodies and blades, of music wed to sharpness.”

Black people and black culture–music, African masks, quilts, the world of the South, and family–dominate his exhibition.

Tomorrow I May Be Far Away is “the blues” as painting. The title of the painting is borrowed from the lyrics of a 1929 tune recorded by Edith Johnson. He further explores the connections between the two art forms in Three Folk Musicians, a colorful quilt-like painting.

Numerous other pieces in the exhibition offer this ode to music. Of the Blues, At the Savoy is a throwback to what Bearden remembered from the early days of jazz when it boomed loud on the streets of New York City. Like man of Bearden’s works, Train Whistle Blues I and Train Whistle Blues II rest their creative spirit on musical techniques (call and response) to communicate the message.

Watching the Good Train Go By was inspired b Bearden’s memories of standing with his grandfather in the evening watching and waiting on trains down in North Carolina. This collage piece is specific rather than abstract.

“I use the train as a symbol of the other civilization, the white civilization, and its encroachment upon the lives of blacks,” Bearden once commented regarding this piece. “The train was always something that could take you away and could also bring you where you were. And in the little towns, it’s the black people who live near the trains.”

But the most talked about piece in the exhibition is called The Street. Created during the civil rights movement, The Street is full of black faces and black people scattered and jammed together in a chaotic, dense, urban landscape. Their faces, at times, seem confused and despondent. Yet, many other faces seem determined and wanting, as if the time for real change has finally arrived and they intend to be a part of that change, however it is to occur.

Piano Lesson is a magnificent painting he created in 1983. In the work, an older black woman stands over a younger black girl at a piano. Their faces are deep black, and the painting is full of bold colors.

When playwright August Wilson saw this piece, he was floored. It inspired him to write a play called The Piano Lesson. Like Bearden’s painting, Wilson’s story is about black life in America, the daily struggle, and the quest for personal triumph. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

Recently, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis released an album called Bearden Revisited in tribute to the artist and the exhibition. Most of the songs are named after Bearden’s paintings.

One song, “Seabreeze,” refers to the early 1950s when Bearden’s art was not paying well and he embarked on a career in songwriting. He co-wrote the tune “Seabreeze,” and the jazz legend Billy Eckstine and other artists recorded it.

When I went to the National Gallery of Art in mid-September, a band played the music Bearden loved and painted–jazz. The musicians were enjoying themselves, and art lovers trickled into the complex. Off from the jazz band, a tent had been set up where museum workers helped a constant stream of children cut paper to make collages like those of Bearden.

“The Art of Romare Bearded” is an American song. Each time I strolled through the exhibit over the last few months, I thought of my mother and grandmother, who are also from the Carolinas. They, too, like Bearden, stepped onto a train decades ago and left their ancestral home for the North and a more equal American experience. Their experience is “The Art of Romare Bearden,” a truly uplifting peek into a world that most Americans have hardly ever seen.

Poet and public interest attorney Brian Gilmore is the author of two collections of poetry, including his latest, “Jungle nights and soda fountain rags: A poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.” “The Art of Romare Bearden” will be on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, February 7-May 16, 2004; Dallas Museum of Art, June 20-September 12, 2004; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 14, 2004-January 9, 2005; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, January 29-April 24, 2005.

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