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Let life prevail. And that is the great tradition of the blues. And then the other things, the interval, all of the analogies . . . that I find in painting, have come to me out of the blues.

Romare Bearden

Bearden’s title, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, evocative of journeys and partings, comes from the blues classic “Good Chib Blues,” recorded by Edith North Johnson in 1929. And like the blues, this monumental collage by Romare Bearden derives its power from repetitions, multiple meanings, and the layered associations of its imagery. Richly interwoven with metaphor and memory, informed by art historical tradition and life experience, and steeped in a vibrant African American cultural heritage, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away is quintessential Bearden in its expression of the universal human condition.

Bearden’s art is exceptional for the way in which it expands the jazz and blues idioms into the visual realm through the medium of collage. In Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, the artist created the visual counterpart of improvisational jazz intervals—marked by shifts in scale, breaks in color and pattern, and disarranged perspectives—and employed repetition, a characteristic of the blues, through the juxtaposition of cuttings from his own hand-painted papers along with those from magazines, catalogues, wrapping papers or wallpapers, and at least one art reproduction—a snippet of a photo reproduction of Henri Rousseau’s The Dream (1910), from the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The result is a rich and varied surface, further enhanced by the artist with charcoal and graphite additions. Bearden said: “People have asked me why I use the collage. I find that when some detail such as a hand or an eye is taken out of its original context and placed in a different space and form configuration, it acquires a different quality.  In such a process the meaning is extended.”

The central figure in Tomorrow I May Be Far Away is seated in front of a rustic cabin. Behind his left shoulder the exterior wall is pierced by a single open window through which a second figure looks out. The shingled wall of the shack is composed of a staccato arrangement of clippings displaying various wood grains that have been repurposed from a catalogue or other printed source.  Constructed of printed papers, this exterior wall also suggests the interior walls of early 20th century sharecropper’s shacks in the rural south, where newspaper, magazine, and catalogue pages were commonly pasted to provide both insulation and adornment. 

Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and his southern roots became the linchpin for his art: “I put the South in my work because it seems near to me. I can’t seem to exhaust the things I remember. The South seems to me, in other words, to be more in my work than any other place.”

Other references to southern rural life can be found in this scene, including the female figure dressed for farm work wearing a head scarf and long skirt and holding an armful of produce.  In the upper right corner of the composition is a train, smoke billowing from its stack as it speeds across the landscape.   

Train images recur frequently in Bearden’s art in all media. The train is one of his “journeying things,” bringing with it many associations, from the personal (his father had for a time worked for the railroad) to the broader allusions of the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration. In a 1977 interview Bearden noted: “Trains are so much a part of Negro life. Negroes lived near the tracks, worked on the railroads, and trains carried them North during the migration.” The importance of repetition and recurring motifs like the train in Bearden’s art has an equivalent in the call-and-response of blues music and in the improvisation of jazz. As Bearden famously explained, “I paint out of the tradition of the blues, of call and recall. You start a theme and you call and recall.”

About the Artist

Romare Bearden in his Long Island City studio

Romare Bearden in his Long Island City studio with a photograph of his paternal great-grandparents, c. 1980, photo by Frank Stewart

Romare Bearden (Fred Romare Harry/Howard Bearden) was born on September 2, 1911, in Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents, Bessye Johnson Banks Bearden and Richard Howard Bearden, moved the family north to New York City when Romare was about three years old, leaving family and friends in the rural South, as did many African Americans during the first wave of what is now known as the Great Migration, in the hope of creating a better life in the urban North. 

Bearden grew up in Harlem, but returned frequently to Charlotte during his boyhood to visit paternal relatives. He also spent time with his maternal grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he completed his final two years of high school. His childhood memories, marked by the distinct character of his experiences in these three cities, would eventually play a central role in his art.  Bearden’s father worked for the railroad and later as an inspector for New York City’s sanitation department. Bessye Bearden was the New York editor for the Chicago Defender, a weekly African American newspaper, and was active in public service and in politics. Her wide social circle meant that the Bearden’s Harlem home was frequented by leading African American intellectuals, writers, and musicians, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington. This rich cultural environment shaped Bearden’s early life in Harlem and informed his art.

Bearden graduated from New York University in 1935 with a degree in education. He took a job as a case worker for New York City’s social services, where he would continue to work for 34 years, and attended night classes at the Art Students League. During the 1930s he was also a political cartoonist, his work appearing in The Crisis, the Baltimore African-American, and other publications.

In 1940 Bearden had his first one-man exhibition of paintings and drawings. With the onset of World War II, he served in the U.S. Army (1942–1945) and in 1950 he traveled to Paris on the G.I. Bill. He returned to the United States, and between 1951 and 1954 he turned briefly to songwriting.  His most acclaimed hit was “Seabreeze,” co-written with Fred Norman and Laerteas (Larry) Douglas. In September of 1954 he married Nanette Rohan.

During the 1940s and 50s Bearden explored artistic styles from social realism to abstract expressionism. But it was in the 1960s, partly out of his involvement with the artists’ group Spiral, that he discovered the power of the collage technique and established his mature style.  Enlarged black-and-white photostats of his collages, which he named Projections, were first exhibited in 1964 and met with critical acclaim. By 1966 his success was enough to allow him to reduce his case- worker hours, and by 1969 he retired fully from social services to dedicate himself to his art. After 1964 Bearden made no additional Projections, but during the 1970s and 80s he added large-scale murals, tapestries, and set and costume design to his repertoire.  He also produced numerous monotypes and prints in addition to his signature collages. 

Bearden was an unwavering advocate for the community of African American artists and was involved in the organization of several groundbreaking exhibitions, including The Evolution of Afro-American Artists, 1800─1950, held at the City University of New York in 1967. He was the first art director for the Harlem Cultural Council (1964) and was elected its president the same year that he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1972). He was involved in founding the Studio Museum in Harlem (1968) and cofounded Cinque Gallery (1969) which offered exhibition space to young artists. In 1970 he was a founding member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and three years later he was appointed to the New York State Council on Arts. That same year he and Nanette built a house in St. Martin, Antilles, on property she had inherited. The Beardens then began to divide their time between New York and Saint Martin, the island scenery and sensibility playing an integral part in the artist’s work from the mid-70s through the 1980s.

Romare Bearden was an accomplished scholar and the author of numerous articles and books, the last of which, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, was co-authored with Harry Henderson and published posthumously in 1993.

Bearden was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the National Medal of Arts (1987). Romare Bearden died of cancer on March 12, 1988.

 

"Good Chib Blues"

Performed by Edith North Johnson (1929)

(ah, blow it for me buddy)

Aah, tomorrow I may be far away
Oh, tomorrow I may be far away
Don't try to jive me, sweet talk can't make me stay

Now if you get loaded baby, and think you want to go
Aah if you get loaded baby, and think you want to go
Remember baby you ain't no better than the man I had before

(ah play it for me little boy . . . get your mind on it . . . blow it like I like it . . .)

When I get drunk I'm evil, I don't know what to do
When I get drunk I'm evil, Lord I don't know what to do
Cause I get my good chib and get somethin' good from you

Now the man I love, he's just about the height of me
Now the man I love, he's just about the height of me
I'm five foot two Lord, and that sweet man's five foot three

Da-da-da-da-da . . .

[back to top]

The Train

The train was an important recurring motif in Bearden’s art, appearing not only in his compositions but also in his titles, from the simple The Train to the lyrical Watching the Good Trains Go By. Many of these titles paid homage to the names of the regularly scheduled passenger and freight trains that crossed the country—Sunset Limited, Afternoon Northbound, Midnight Special, Daybreak Express. The pulsing rhythm of the train as it chugs along the track informs many jazz and blues riffs as well, and not coincidentally, many of Bearden’s titles have counterparts in jazz or blues songs about trains. Train Whistle Blues, a title Bearden used for several compositions, is a probable reference to the eponymous blues tune recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1929. Duke Ellington paid unmistakable jazz tribute to the rolling rhythms of the train in his version of “Daybreak Express,” recorded in 1933. Bearden’s own Daybreak Express, a collage from the Profile/Part I: The Twenties series, was exhibited at Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, New York, in 1978. Each collage was exhibited with the artist’s narrative description written directly on the gallery wall, and beneath Daybreak Express was the observation, “You could tell not only what train it was but also who the engineer was by the sound of the whistle.”

Bearden and Music

Regardless of how good you might be at whatever else you did, you also had to get with the music.

Jazz and blues music were an integral part of Bearden’s life. Bearden’s father was a piano player, and legendary musicians including Thomas Wright (Fats) Waller and Duke Ellington were family friends. Bearden recalled: “I certainly was conscious of jazz as a young boy in Harlem, when this music was everywhere around me. Not only was it on the radio and record players, but I often heard sounds of a piano from an open window, and in warm weather there were likely to be two or three musicians on a street corner playing for whatever onlookers might drop in the hat."

The Lafayette Theatre, where Ellington performed, along with other luminaries such as Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, and Louis Armstrong, was just across the street from the Bearden home on 131st Street in Harlem, and the Savoy Ballroom and Lincoln Theatre were a few short blocks away. 

Bearden’s interest in music extended beyond jazz and blues to popular American music—from Big Band to Broadway. In the early 1950s he even experimented briefly with writing song lyrics. Among the songs he collaborated on between 1951 and 1954 were “Missus Santa Claus” (performed by Leslie Uggams) and the hit “Seabreeze” (both co-written with Fred Norman and Larry Douglas, published by Laerteas Music Company). “ Seabreeze,” performed by Billy Eckstine, was famously used by Seagrams Distillers to promote an eponymous drink. He became a member of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in 1955, although by 1956 he ended his songwriting career to return to painting.

The impact of these distinctively American musical genres on Bearden’s art went beyond a superficial borrowing of lyrics or themes. Bearden readily acknowledged the relationship of jazz improvisation to his artistic practice: “I did take a great deal from this music—whose essence is one of great order and integrity—that I use substantially in my own painting. One important example is the concept of improvisation, so fundamental to the jazz process.”

Bearden and 20th-Century Collage: Expanding the Medium

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Pablo Picasso, The Cup of Coffee, 1913.

The process of image-making via cutting and pasting from preprinted sources has noteworthy precedence in modern art, particularly in the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, at the turn of the 20th century. The practice of collage and photomontage became a significant means of expressing the chaos of modern life for the Dadaists, and was frequently used by artists such as Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, and others.

Other models for the technique can be seen in the vibrant paper cutouts Henri Matisse produced during the last decade of his life.  Some of  Bearden’s contemporaries—artists including Willem DeKooning,  Robert Motherwell,  Robert Rauschenberg , and Richard Hamilton—also incorporated cut and pasted paper into their work.

Romare Bearden, known today as a master of the medium, first explored the use of cut and pasted paper in a few works during the mid to late 1950s, after more than a decade of making art. It was during the early 1960s, precipitated by his involvement with an artists’ group called Spiral, that he fully embraced the process and developed his signature technique.

Bearden’s collage practice of the 1960s incorporated many cuttings from commercially printed sources, including catalogues, photo reproductions, and popular magazines such as Life, Vogue, and Ebony. In the decades that followed, however, Bearden gradually moved away from these materials to incorporate more of his own painted papers and manufactured colored papers (color-aid), further enriching their surfaces with paint and through techniques such as abrasion and bleaching. Bearden thereby expanded the medium, shaping it within the framework of art-historical precedent and amplifying it through a personal artistic vision that embraced his African American heritage, in particular, quiltmaking.  Bearden’s collages combine fragments and repurpose materials analogous to the sophisticated piecing together of the patchwork quilt, which, the artist noted, “were all around when I was a little boy.” Bearden frequently featured quilts and the gatherings (bees) that produced them in his work, such as in Patchwork Quilt and Quilting Time. The art of quiltmaking was itself an aesthetic extension of the common collage-related practice of pasting newspaper, magazine, and catalogue pages to Southern sharecropper’s cabin walls as an inexpensive means of insulation and decoration.

Spiral and Collage: More on the Origins of Bearden's Signature Technique

In July of 1963, a small number of artists met in Bearden’s studio one month before Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington. Bearden recalled:

This was the time of the first march on Washington and we thought it might be interesting as a group of Negro artists maybe to hire a bus—a  great number of people, as you know, were converging on Washington—and  go down to represent the Negro artists. Then a number of the people who came to the first meetings . . .  felt what we had was so important that we should continue.

The group included Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Felrath Hines, Richard Mayhew, and later Emma Amos, Merton Simpson, Reginald Gammon, and Alvin Hollingsworth, among others. Woodruff suggested the name for the group, associating their purpose with the ever widening, upward movement of Archimedes’ spiral. Eventually they rented a space on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village, where their first and only exhibition was held in 1965. It was in preparing for this group show that Bearden’s interest in collage took hold:

I mentioned Spiral, this group of Negro artists—we were talking one day about the possibility of a group of the artists working jointly on a picture and I was thinking of a possible way that this could be done. I thought that if we had photographs maybe we could each paste some down. And I mentioned this to several artists, one who was a landscape painter. I cut out some trees and I cut out some figures, and I said, maybe you could make a landscape and I could paste some of the figures on it and let's see what we can do. I worked on one or two alone just to try to get the idea myself to show the other artists. But they didn't seem to be too interested in it and I continued.

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