Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT
The artist Romare Bearden made a rich, incomparable record of the black America of his time. Born Sept. 2, 1911, in Charlotte, N.C., he painted the African-Americans of the South and the stories he heard from them his whole life, decades after he left Dixie with his family for the North, like so many Southern blacks.
Bearden painted the people of Harlem, where he grew up, his college-educated parents being friends of such central figures of the Harlem Renaissance as Duke Ellington and the maverick (and conservative) journalist George S. Schuyler. He lived with his maternal grandparents from time to time in Pittsburgh, and the blacks of that city and their lives, too, figure in his work.
Bearden's aim as an artist, in his own words, was to render as best he could "the richness of a life I know," that of black America. On another occasion he explained the purpose behind his work was an effort "to establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic."
How rich that life and culture indeed were, and how beautifully this exceptional artist portrayed it now can be seen at a major exhibition of Bearden's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. "The Art of Romare Bearden" is the gallery's first retrospective of a black artist. Bearden is one of eight artists the gallery has chosen to honor since World War II with a comprehensive exhibit that includes 130 of his works.
And what an exhibition it is! Organized with great care and acumen by curator Ruth Fine, with generous financial support from AT&T, the show is an intense and pleasurable experience. Bearden's vigorous, sometimes-daring and idiosyncratic use of color, as well as his uncanny ability to make alive the people who inhabit his paintings and collages (a favorite Bearden medium), are testaments to his skill as an artist. Bearden's black Americans really do look like they're singing or playing jazz in a combo. They look like they're on the move, whatever they happen to be doing, momentarily frozen in the painting while going about familiar activities at home or work, or out for an evening's entertainment.
Bearden never shirked from the wrongs done African-Americans - their economic oppression, their disenfranchisement - or from the evils of racism. But his subject never was so much oppression as it was the rich, vigorous culture blacks created despite (and because of) their exclusion from the opportunities of mainstream America.
Not all of his work was representational. On occasion he did gorgeous abstractions such as his 1962 North of the River, a work that suggests an aerial view from very high up of an unknown land. Done mostly in black and somber shades, it has a small triangle of brilliant red, a dollop of color that gives the work much of its strength. But it is for his paintings of people and his late landscapes that Bearden is most famous and often at his best. He worked in a variety of media. In the 1940s, for example, he worked on biblical themes in paintings such as The Visitation and watercolors on events from Christ's Passion such as Untitled (Crucifixion) and Untitled (The Resurrection).
In the early 1960s Bearden took up collage. Using cut paper and images or parts of images clipped from newspapers along with paint, ink and graphite, he composed work after work centering on black Americans and their lives.
Farm Couple (c. 1965) could be called a black American Gothic, after Grant Wood's famous image of a white American farming couple. In Bearden's picture the man holds a guitar while his wife stands next to him. On their right a baby stands by its crib below a window through which the sky is visible. It's a painting that suggests family ties and hope.
Bearden painted the female form frequently, both nude and clothed. His women could be sensuous but chaste. They could be lewd. …