Romare Bearden (b. 1911–d. 1988) is an artist best known for his inventive collage methods, evident in his production from the mid-1950s to the time of his death. Influenced by synthetic cubism, fauvism, and German expressionism, Bearden created intimate collages of cut-out magazine and book images—figures and forms of everyday life and of canonical art from around the world as well. The collages served as the basis of other projects in which Bearden photographed, photocopied, and enlarged them to produce matte, black-and-white prints. Bearden also made unique mixed media work, bringing together a variety of papers and materials and reworking the bas-relief surfaces additively with paint, ink, and graphite and subtractively by abrading them. His mature production included watercolor drawings, oil monoprints, sculpture, limited edition prints (etchings, lithographs, and serigraphs), fabric and textile work, and commissioned public murals and stage design as well. A student of George Grosz during the 1930s, Bearden started out as a social realist painter who admired Mexican muralism of the period that heroicized the poor and working classes and satirized the rich and powerful. Early in his career, Bearden was a political cartoonist and illustrator for student publications at Boston University and New York University as well as for African American newspapers and magazines. In search of universal themes, Bearden, in an expressionist mode, interpreted ancient Greek myths, biblical narratives, and Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems during the 1940s, a decade during which he enjoyed some success. His work was included in the annuals of major museums and in African American art surveys, and it was the subject of monographic exhibitions organized by galleries in New York and Washington, DC, even during World War II when he served in the US Army. The Museum of Modern Art and Bryn Mawr College acquired his paintings. When support for Bearden’s art dwindled, he traveled in Europe for several months, and, once back in the United States, he returned to his job as a New York City social worker. He also took up songwriting, penning lyrics for jazzy tunes and romantic ballads that won popular acclaim. Encouraged by friends, among them Hannah Arendt and Henrich Blucher, Bearden returned to visual art making in the mid-1950s. He made abstract paintings and Dada-influenced collages. The latter mostly featured people of African descent as totemic forms and as dramatis personae in diverse narrative traditions. The iconic figures of his compositions included working-class African Americans whom he knew from spending summers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his grandmother, Harlem’s Big Band leaders, and black healers, conjurers, and musicians from the rural US South and from the Caribbean island of St. Martin. An artist, curator, writer, and community organizer, Bearden often worked collaboratively: he co-wrote books on art theory and art history and he co-founded artists’ groups and art exhibitions spaces. A humanist and anti-racist activist, Bearden was a vocal advocate for the arts, for African Americans, and for greater opportunities for artists of all races and backgrounds.
Monographs and Biographies
Many catalogues published to accompany Bearden exhibitions include biographical information on the artist’s life, cultural history of his times, chronologies, and germane bibliographies. Still, two biographies of Bearden, published after his passing, are distinctive because their authors knew Bearden, and they interviewed the artist and those close to him. Bearden effectively collaborated with both of these writers. Campbell, a graduate student in art history during the 1970s, began corresponding with Bearden, for he was the subject of her MA thesis and PhD dissertation, both of which inform Campbell 2018. In preparation for Schwartzman 1990, the author met weekly with the artist to collect material. Price and Price 2006, written by two American anthropologists who study the colonial history, folklore, and maroon societies of the Caribbean, examines Bearden’s life on St. Martin, his wife’s ancestral home and a locale the couple visited regularly for the last twenty years of his life. Corlett 2009 (cited under Monographic Exhibition Publications) gives necessary attention to Bearden’s printmaking.
Campbell, Mary Schmidt. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
An art historian who positions Bearden as an Odysseus-like traveler who journeyed through the artistic movements—social realism, cubist-influence figural abstraction, abstract expressionism—and then returned “home” to representationalism—however fragmented and abstract—of resonant black cultures, environments, and people.
Price, Sally, and Richard Price. Romare Bearden: The Caribbean Dimension. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
The authors argue that the light and color of the island’s flora and fauna and the dynamism of regional religious and cultural traditions, such as obeah and carnival, deeply affected the artist, bringing new energy to the entirety of his oeuvre. This text was simultaneously published with a French version: Sally Price and Richard Price, Romare Bearden: Une dimension caribéenne (La Roque-d’Anthéron, France: Vents d’Ailleurs, 2006).
Schwartzman, Myron. Romare Bearden: His Life and Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.
A professor of English at the City University of New York when he met Bearden in 1978, Schwartzman had long been interested in African American literature and culture. This lavishly illustrated publication is an account of Bearden’s life and offers readings of his works.
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