About Romare Bearden, Artist
By Amin Sharif
Romare Bearden has been called by American art critics Myron Schwarzman “the
foremost American artist who portrayed the African American experience through the language of narrative and metaphor.”
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1921, Bearden’s family moved early in his life to Harlem, New York. It would be
there that Bearden’s social activist parents would entertain in their home the most notable writers, musicians, and
artists of the Harlem Renaissance. It was through these historic figures and his family’s deep concern for social reform
that Bearden would inherit both his political and artistic sensibilities.
Not just an artist, Romare Bearden was a multi-talented genius. He played one year
of professional baseball in Boston, played in jazz bands, and even composed music. Bearden’s
composition Sea Breeze was recorded by both Billy Eckstein and Tito Puente.
And, Bearden also designed sets for Alvin Alley’s Dance Company. His early
artistic work was to find its way into publications such as The Baltimore Afro-American, Colliers, and the Saturday Day Evening
Romare Bearden was a highly educated man. He attended New York University graduating
with a degree in mathematics. After serving in the military, Bearden studied philosophy in Paris. Eventually, Bearden returned
to the United States and obtained a graduate degree in social work from Columbia University in 1966. In his lifetime, Bearden
was to receive five honorary degrees and the prestigious President’s National Medal of Art in 1988.
Always believing in the social responsibility of the artist, Bearden formed the Spiral
Group composed of African American artist in 1963. The Spiral Group sought to make a contribution to the Civil Rights Movement
that was at its apex at this time. It was during this time that Bearden developed his famous “collage technique.”
The technique “represented a stylistic breakthrough” for Bearden. And it would be a technique that Bearden would
refine throughout his life. This collage technique--called by its creator “photomontage”--consisted
of clippings from popular magazines, black and white photography, and pieces of Bearden’s art. The result of Bearden’s
photomontage was often startling, sometimes mystical, sometimes socially sensitive imagery.
Though Bearden complains in his essay "The
Negro Artist and Modern Art" that Negro artists had developed nothing “original” akin to spirituals and
jazz, Bearden’s photomontage technique, as well as his paintings, would place him far beyond any such criticism. Bearden
following his own advice in using local settings created magnificent works. It was said of his work Bayou Fever that invoked
“African heritage rooted strongly in Louisiana and about the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and North America.”
|It was not only locale that made Bearden’s work so interesting. Found in this artist’s
work are a deep appreciation for the “ancient myths and traditional ritual” embedded in African and African American
society. In addition to these unique factors, we find that Bearden is not afraid to place the seal of his own symbolism on
his work. We find all of these themes present in Bearden’s Prevalence of Ritual series. Perhaps the most famous work
of this series is Bearden’s Prodigal Son based on the New Testament story. James Weldon Johnson included the same tale
in his famous collection of sermons God’s Trombone.
Not only are traditional ritual and ancient myth essential in Bearden’s work, we also find
jazz and the blues themes represented on his canvases. Indeed, many critics assert
that “jazz is the aesthetic pulse” of Bearden’s work. Bearden, we know, completed some “illustrations”
based on the subject for an “unrealized” book inspired by the 1961 movie Paris Blues.
One might recall that the movie starred Paul Newman, Joane Woodward, Sidney Poiter,
and Diahann Carol. The musical score of the movie was provided by the great jazz composer Duke Ellington. And the movie also
included a cameo appearance by Louis Armstrong. By the way, Paris Blues was not the only movie that Bearden was to be involved,
he painted some twenty-two watercolors for the New York scenes of John Cassavette’s film Gloria. Among Bearden’s
many works on jazz and blues are his Le Jazz, Out of Chorus, and Louisiana Serenade.
In closing, we must touch on the only criticism launched against Bearden’s
work that is his preference for “social realism.” Bearden says that it was when he joined the “Artist Students
League” studying under George Grosz that he began to include “social commentary” within his art. But one
must remember that almost from birth, Bearden was exposed to social protest-- if not by his activist parents, then most certainly
by the Negro intellectuals that visited his home. But the fact is that Bearden’s works are never harmed, but are only
enhanced, by his keen eye and acknowledgement of the suffering of the black and poor in which he came in contact.
Indeed, in such works as the Factory Workers, Bearden give humanity and dignity to
his fellow Negro--a value too often denied the Negro within American society. If this be the only fault in Bearden’s
work, then it is one that is more than acceptable to those who have come to love this genius and his great artistic accomplishments.
Bearden died in 1988 after a full and productive life.
* * * * *
Ralph Ellison on Bearden and African Art
First, I should tell you that although I’ve been collecting
African art for a long time, I am not a Pan-Africanist. I love the art for itself. Nor am I anti-Africa. [Laughter.] No, as
far as writing goes, I’ve not been influenced by Bearden, although I met him during what I believe was his first period.
He was doing the heroic, mural type of painting which was developed by such artists as Diego Rivera. Later, I was to have
many talks with him, and over the years, I always found him stimulating and conscious of where he was going.
As a serious artist in his own field, Bearden still affirms and strengthens
me in my own work. . . . concerning the influence of one artist upon another, I’d say that it frequently takes
other forms than that of copying or trying to do what another artist or writer does in his precise manner. That is mere imitation.
But, sometimes, by working in his chosen form, a fellow artist can affirm one’s own effort and give you the courage
to struggle with the problems of your medium.
So, in that light, you might say that Bearden influenced me. Just
by knowing him at a time when we were both working hard and without much recognition, I found strength for my own efforts.
He had faith in the importance of artistic creation, and I learned something about the nature of painting from listening to
his discussions of his craft. Look around, and you’ll see that I own a number of his works. So, as I see it, it’s
not the imitation of an artist’s work, or even his endorsement of your talent, that’s of basic importance, but
this assertion of artistic ideals, and the example of his drive to achieve excellence.
But, then I’ve found a similar affirmation in the examples
of football players, jazz musicians—who for me are the most important—tap dancer, and even a few bootleggers [Laughter].
Such people attract me with a certain elegance and flair for style, as have certain preachers and teachers.
I never attended anything but segregated schools, from first grade
through graduation, and yet certain fine teachers inspired me to do the best I had in me. Being angry over segregation, it
took me a while to realize that despite a handful of indifferent teachers, I also had a few that were excellent, people who
still inspire me.
Source: The Essential Ellison (Interview)—Ishmael Reed, Quincy
Troupe, Steve Cannon. Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird • Copyright © 1977, 1978 Y’Bird Magazine