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Release Date: August 29, 2003

Backgrounder: The Art of Romare Bearden

Washington, DC—The Art of Romare Bearden is the most comprehensive retrospective ever assembled of the large and diverse body of work by one of America's preeminent 20th-century artists. It includes approximately 130 works--paintings; drawings and watercolors; monotypes and edition prints; collages of diverse materials, including fabrics; photographs; wood sculpture; and designs for record albums, costumes and stage sets, and book illustrations--that explore the complexity and scope of the artist's evolution and include many rarely exhibited and/or never before reproduced works from private collections.

Bearden's oeuvre of approximately 2,000 known works in many media reveals the diverse influences of earlier Western masters ranging from Duccio, Giotto, and de Hooch to Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse, as well as his fascination with African art (particularly sculpture, masks, and textiles), Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints, and Chinese paintings.

Presented thematically in a roughly chronological sequence, the works in the show represent the places where Bearden lived and worked: the rural south; northern cities, principally Pittsburgh and New York's Harlem; and the Caribbean island of St. Martin. They also reflect his wide range of interests and explore overlapping themes of religion, ritual practice, everyday life, jazz clubs, brothels, history, mythology, and literature. The sections of the exhibition and highlights are as follows:

Origins: Christian iconography plays a role throughout Bearden's oeuvre and is evident from the start in two of his gouaches from c.1941, The Visitation and The Family, the latter never before exhibited or reproduced. Works representing literary themes based on the Passion of Christ and Federico Garcia Lorca's 1935 poem, Lament for a Bullfighter (Lamento por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias), will be on view along with two early abstract collages, Harlequin (c.1956) and North of the River (1962).

Circa 1964: Approximately 20 small collages from 1964 made almost entirely of magazine and newspaper clippings were inspired by the Civil Rights movement and Bearden's participation in Spiral (a group of African-American artists). One of Bearden's most important motifs, the train, appears in works such as Train Whistle Blues: I, Train Whistle Blues: II, and Watching the Good Trains Go By.

Expulsion from Paradise; Pittsburgh Memory; The Street, depicting Harlem; and Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman are among other collages on view along with four powerful Projections, which are photostatic enlargements of the collages. Bearden's Projections were a radical departure that brought him increased attention from the art world and press. A selection of later works revisits this early imagery, a form of Bearden's “call and recall.”

Mecklenburg Memories: In the mid- to late-sixties, Bearden began using a wider array of papers, as well as foils and fabrics in his collages, and began to incorporate extensive use of spray paint. Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (where Bearden was born and spent many summers), defined his pictorial direction at this time. Among the large collages shown here will be Three Men (1966-1967); Tomorrow I May Be Far Away (1966/1967); Sunday Morning Breakfast (1967), based on a painting by Horace Pippin; and Three Folk Musicians (1967), which pays homage to a cubist painting by Picasso.

The City and Its Music: Bearden spent much of his life in cities, primarily New York. He immersed himself in the varied street life, especially of Harlem, as may be seen in the packed particulars of The Block II (1972; an unusual multi-panel piece with some panels inset and others built out), the more abstract celebratory aura of City Lights (c.1970), or the subtle and intimate Untitled (c.1971), composed from multiple vantage points and depicting a gridded hopscotch game on a water-soaked sidewalk interrupted by a shadow-like figure hopping mid-air, a child, and two cats.

Berkeley-The City and Its People (1973), to be seen for the first time outside of the Berkeley City Council chambers where it was installed in 1974, is an extraordinary complex of photographs and colored papers on seven panels that together measure ten by sixteen feet. One of Bearden's largest known works on paper, it depicts the many facets of this university city which was new to the artist, although he quickly came to understand it in all of its aspects. The composition includes four heads representing the city's racial diversity that later became Berkeley's logo.

Bearden's world of jazz is one of clear forms and brilliant color, unlike the smokey images depicted by many others in word, film, or paint. Works from Bearden's 1974 exhibition, Of the Blues (Cordier & Ekstrom), that are included in this section--all with titles that begin with the phrase Of the Blues--are At the Savoy and Wrapping it up at the Lafayette. An aspect of his attention to music may be seen in the album covers for jazz artists he knew, including the collages Thank You…For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life) (1978) for Donald Byrd, and J Mood (c.1985) for Wynton Marsalis.

Stories: The exhibition includes Bearden's only known work of sculpture, Mauritius (1969), alluding to a martyred Roman soldier, an African recruited from upper Egypt. Captivity and Resistance (1976), a dramatic textile collage measuring approximately 6 x 10 feet, was created by Bearden for the opening of what is known today as the African American Museum in Philadelphia. The major theme is the 1839 Mende rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad, with numerous references to the Civil War. Biblical references include Noah, the Third Day (1972) and Delilah (1973). Several of Bearden's 1977 Odysseus collages as well as related small watercolors reveal his lifelong fascination with Greek mythology.

Women: Bearden cited “the beauty of the black woman” as a subject of immense importance to him and it was a motif he used throughout his career. He depicted nude women in the academic tradition, as in Two Moons of Luvernia (1970) and Reclining Nude (c.1977), an homage to the work of Matisse; as prostitutes in collages such as The Apprenticeship of Jelly Roll Morton (1971); as lovers in Down Home, also (1971); and as one with nature, as in Madeline Jones' Wonderful Garden (1977). Bearden also celebrated the mother-child relationship in such works as Mother and Child (c.1972) and Woman and Child Reading (1977). Another significant female motif is the Conjur (a magic woman or sorcerer in African-American culture), who appears in several works throughout the exhibition.

Monotypes: Bearden was introduced to a hybrid process that conflates aspects of drawing and painting with printmaking by his longtime friend Robert Blackburn, founder of New York's Printmaking Workshop. Bearden's monotypes picture a variety of motifs. Among these are the blues, as in Mirror and Banjo (c.1983); jazz, as in Zach Whyte's Beau Brummell Band (1980) and Celebrations: Trumpet Spot, Wynton (c.1983); portraiture, as in Blues Singer (1975); and lush landscapes, as in Rain Forest -- Pool (c.1978) and Waterfall (c.1980).

Collaborations: The exhibition includes 16 designs for costumes, masks, and sets that have never been exhibited or reproduced that Bearden created for a ballet “Conjur: A Masked Folk Ballet.”

Late Work: Interviews with Calvin Tomkins in preparation for a fascinating 1977 New Yorker “Profile” inspired two series of works: Profile/Part I, The Twenties, which referenced characters and situations associated with Bearden's early life in Pittsburgh and Mecklenburg County, and Profile/Part II, The Thirties, which focused on his life in Harlem. The exhibition includes three works from each series. Other major late works include lush landscapes such as Birds in Paradise (c.1982) and Mecklenburg Autumn: October-Toward Paw's Creek (1983); urban life such as Pittsburgh Memories (1984); Caribbean scenes, such as Obeah in a Trance (1984); and such domestic interiors as Piano Lesson (1983), a version of which inspired August Wilson's stage play by the same name. Also in the show are three illustrations (never before exhibited or reproduced) for a book, L'il Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story, for which Bearden also wrote the text. It will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers to coincide with the exhibition.

The Artist
Romare Bearden was born to (Richard) Howard and Bessye Bearden in Charlotte, North Carolina, the seat of Mecklenburg County, on September 2, 1911 (according to a baptismal record that will be published in the exhibition catalogue). Due to Jim Crow laws, life became increasingly difficult for African Americans, even for such college educated and economically successful families as the Beardens. Therefore, about 1914, Howard, Bessye, and Romare joined in the Great Migration north, settling in New York City, which remained Bearden's base for the rest of his life.

Bessye became a social and political activist and was the New York correspondent for the African-American newspaper, Chicago Defender, while Howard worked as a city sanitation inspector, played the piano in his off-hours, and, according to Bearden's close friend author Ralph Ellison, was “a teller of tales.” Their life was centered in the intellectual, artistic, and political mainstream of the Harlem Renaissance: among their friends were writer Countee Cullen; musician Duke Ellington; actor, activist, and athlete Paul Robeson; the founder-president of the National Council of Negro Women, Mary McLeod Bethune; and the first African-American surgical intern at Harlem Hospital, Dr. Aubré de L. Maynard.

Bearden's interest in art was sparked by experiences with a childhood friend in Pittsburgh and by his experiences and observations in the studio of Harlem artist Augusta Savage. After extensive studies in art, he graduated with a degree in education from New York University (NYU) where he had been a lead cartoonist and then art editor for the college's monthly journal The Medley. He published the first of many journal covers during his university years and the first of numerous texts he would write on social and artistic issues. In 1935 he became a weekly editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Afro-American, until 1937.

Employed by the New York City Department of Social Services, Bearden worked in his studio on weekends and evenings, and took additional classes from German-born artist George Grosz at the Art Students League. He had his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940, his first solo show in Washington, D.C., in 1944, and his work was exhibited in Paris before the end of the decade. Bearden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, was assigned to the First Headquarters, Fifteenth Regiment, the all-black 372nd Infantry Division, and was honorably discharged. After the war he joined the prestigious Samuel Kootz Gallery in Manhattan, which represented prominent artists including William Baziotes, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, and Robert Motherwell.

In 1950, Bearden used the G.I. Bill to travel to Paris, France, where he studied literature, philosophy, Buddhism, and art, and made side trips to Italy and Spain. Back in New York, he returned to his job at the Department of Social Services and worked as a songwriter. In 1954 he married Nanette Rohan, with whom he spent the rest of his life.

Bearden continued to be a prolific artist whose works were exhibited throughout the United States and Europe. He was also a respected writer and an eloquent spokesman on artistic and social issues of the day. He was active in many arts organizations: after his Spiral association, he was appointed in 1964 as the first art director of the newly established Harlem Cultural Council, a prominent African American advocacy group with several hundred members; and was elected to the American Academy of Design and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He retired from his full-time position at the Department of Social Services in 1966, but continued working there part time until 1969.

Bearden's collages appeared on the covers of Fortune and Time magazines in 1968, and he was active in the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem. With seed money from the Ford Foundation, Bearden with artists Norman Lewis and Ernest Crichlow founded Cinque Gallery, in support of younger minority artists. Bearden designed costumes and sets for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and programs, sets, and designs for Nanette Bearden's Contemporary Dance Theatre. In the early 1970s he and Nanette established a second residence on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, his wife's ancestral home.

Bearden's many awards and honors include the National Medal of Arts he received from President Ronald Reagan in 1987, one year before he died. Among his numerous publications is A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, which was coauthored with Harry Henderson; it was published posthumously in 1993.

A retrospective exhibition and national tour of Bearden's work was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. After several other museum shows during his lifetime, a posthumous retrospective was organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1991.

Bearden at the National Gallery of Art
Works by Bearden are in dozens of museums throughout the United States. The National Gallery of Art's collection includes several works such as the major collage Tomorrow I May Be Far Away (1966/1967); The Street (Composition for Richard Wright) (c.1977), an ink drawing reproduced in the New York Times in 1977; The Fiddler (1965), an unusual screenprint on canvas based on a photostat; Circe, a collage design for a Modern Masters tapestry; three examples of his distinctive collagraph prints; and The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott and the Art of Romare Bearden (1983), an illustrated book that includes an original lithograph.

The Art of Romare Bearden is one of eight major comprehensive retrospectives of work in a variety of media by post World War II artists shown at the National Gallery of Art since it opened in 1941. The others are: Georgia O'Keeffe 1887-1988 (1987-88); Selections and Transformations: The Art of John Marin (1990); Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (1995); Piet Mondrian: 1872-1944 (1995); Alexander Calder 1898-1976 (1988); Mark Rothko (1998); and Henry Moore (2001-2002).

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Curator Biography

Ruth Fine
(Retired) Curator of Special Projects in Modern Art National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Online Resources

Exhibition Page

Blues and Dreams:
A Citywide Celebration

in Washington, DC

Li'l Dan, The Drummer Boy
A Civil War Story
(Book and CD)

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