Magazine article The World and I

The Art of Romare Bearden

Magazine article The World and I

The Art of Romare Bearden

Article excerpt

Ruth Fine is curator of special projects in modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In paintings, drawings, watercolors, collages, monotypes, and even stage sets, Romare Bearden reflected a wide range of interests and evoked the places he loved.

(Editor's Note: The following is taken from a National Gallery of Art brochure accompanying the exhibition The Art of Romare Bearden. Organized by the National Gallery of Art and touring American museums through April 2005, the retrospective is the most comprehensive ever assembled of works by Bearden, one of America's preeminent twentieth- century artists. The exhibition includes about 130 works and strives to show the diverse mediums the artist explored in his oeuvre of more than two thousand works.)

The Art of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) celebrates the career of one of the most innovative American artists of the twentieth century. Bearden derived his autobiographical and metaphorical imagery from a cultural heritage rooted in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where he was born. This region was the home of Bearden's paternal family, and Bearden returned there for visits throughout his childhood. About 1914, he moved with his parents to New York City--settling in Harlem--as part of the African-American Great Migration north. For the rest of his life he was based in New York, a continual source of inspiration. Bearden's imagery also reflects extended childhood stays with his maternal grandparents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and, much later, time spent on the Caribbean island of St. Martin where he and his wife Nanette maintained a second home on her family's property.

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Bearden's family home was a meeting place for major cultural figures such as writer Langston Hughes, painter Aaron Douglas, and musician Duke Ellington. The polyphony of words, images, and sounds these luminaries would have generated undoubtedly stimulated Bearden's curiosity and imagination.

The Beardens' aspiration for their only son was that he earn a degree in medicine. After taking courses including biology, trigonometry, and Greek during a year of studies at the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, however, Bearden shifted his focus to art, first at Boston University and then at New York University, from which he received a degree in education in 1935. He enrolled in courses including perspective, figure drawing, and watercolor. More important, Bearden studied at the Art Students League with George Grosz, an immigrant to New York from Germany where he had been a major figure in the artistic movement called Dada. The politically charged Dada images would likely have interested Bearden who created a weekly political cartoon for the Baltimore Afro-American for two years in the mid-1930s. Another aspect of Dada practice that later emerged in Bearden's art was the use of collage. Grosz also introduced Bearden to the full history of Western art, which would provide the foundation for many of his compositions. Backyard, for example, pays homage to seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting.

In addition to his classroom education, Bearden studied painting and sculpture on view in New York's museums and galleries. His images also incorporate elements of African art, essential to his own cultural heritage and a source of formal innovation in the art of European modernists such as Pablo Picasso, who in turn influenced Bearden.

Practicing his art at night and on weekends, from the late 1930s through the 1960s, Bearden's days were occupied by a job with the New York City Department of Social Services. His only interruptions were a stint in the army during World War II, several months of study and travel in Europe on the G.I. Bill in 1950, and a period of ill health mid-decade. Not until he was almost sixty years of age was he finally able to earn enough through art sales to work full-time in his Long Island City studio. …

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