Romare Bearden (1911-1988) never thought of himself as an African-American artist. He was aware that he was, in some ways, a standard-bearer for his people, but he also believed that art is, by definition, universal; in his words, “It is not my aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda. It is precisely my awareness of the distortions required of the polemicist that has caused me to paint the life of my people as I know it—as passionately and dispassionately as Brueghel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day.”
This statement was published in 1969 and may sound curious or old-fashioned to the critic used to reciting the mantras of multiculturalism: contempt for the apolitical, suspicion for questions of quality, and disregard for the “undeconstructed” artist. Without bending to prevailing winds of theory, Bearden achieved a significant measure of popular and critical acclaim, and since his death, his works have been exhibited widely. An unabashed, self-declared cubist throughout his career, he was thoroughly grounded in the history of art and always receptive to the exchange of ideas. He found in distortion and abstraction the necessary forces to create his compelling world of sorcery, mythology, history, and biography.
Bearden’s vision, his career in effect, can be divided roughly into three phases: figurative cubism in the 1940’s, lyrical abstraction in the mid-1950’s, and the signature collages, for which he is best known, in the 1960’s and after. These periods overlap and are certainly not rigid demarcations in style. Bearden’s art is too idiosyncratic, too distinctive to fit into neat classifications. What remains constant are this themes of African-American culture and his interest in developing a visual language that interprets those concerns. The primary value of this book is in its impressive presentation of works from throughout his career. Full-color and black-and-white illustrations are abundant and conveniently located, but, alas, as they appear without figure numbers to identify them or notations in the text, it is hard to refer backward or forward when works are compared or discussed again many pages away.
Curiously, for a man about whom so much was written in his lifetime, Bearden’s birth year is given in several sources as 1912 or 1914. Schwartzman confirms through christening records that Bearden was born on September 2, 1911; nevertheless, in the Library of Congress data on the colophon, his birthdate is still given as 1914. It is one of several annoying and careless inconsistencies in what is taken to be an authoritative book on the artist’s life and work.
Romare Bearden’s youth in Mecklenburg County haunted him for the rest of his life. Unable to forget what must have been a happy time for him, he developed a personal iconography of roosters, grandmothers, nudes, musicians, shacks, and fabrics as emblems of memory. His various collages of Maudell Sleet, a half- remembered, mythical figure from his youth, are in some ways representative. In one, for example, she dwarfs the moon, her outsized hands symbolic of her gardener’s pride, her strength evident in her bold regard, and her fecundity visible in the bounty of her crops. In another from the same series, she works in her “magic garden”; merging through color with the flowers and herbs she tends, Maudell Sleet is a rich, evocative symbol of the patchwork ways of memory.
So vivid is the Mecklenburg series that the viewer may be surprised that Bearden really grew up elsewhere, in the bustling Harlem and industrial Pittsburgh of the 1920’s. By 1925, he had been graduated from public elementary school in New York and, four years later, from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh. His education continued at New York University, where he received the degree of Bachelor of Science in mathematics. The very next year, 1936, found him studying at the Art Students League with George Grosz, and two years later he took a job, which guaranteed him a steady income for many years, with the New York City Department of Social Services as a case worker. During World War II, he served in the 372nd Infantry Division of the United States Army. In 1950, he studied in Paris under the G.I. Bill, and like so many aesthetes before him, found in the tolerance, the beauty, and the vibrancy of that city distractions aplenty to keep him from painting. Paris, the artist’s Mecca, had once again transformed a serious student into a dedicated flaneur.
For several years thereafter, Bearden’s creative energies went into music rather than painting, although Schwartzman contends that he never stopped painting entirely: “For the moment, he was out of the fray, for he was not painting with his whole being.” So enticing was the siren song of Paris that Bearden thought he could make enough money as a songwriter to return there. With others, he composed some twenty songs, the most successful of which was “Sea Breeze,” recorded by Billy Eckstein and later by Tito Puente. Even those royalties were not enough to finance a return to Paris, however, and Bearden became despondent. Schwartzman describes this period as the point at which Bearden had to rededicate himself to the visual arts:
Despite the relative success he achieved, Bearden felt a deep malaise. He knew deep down that he was not cut out to be a songwriter—“I don’t think I ever could have been, no matter how much I studied”—and that his was a temperament suited to one dedication alone—painting. Moreover, he realized, “the public knows, or can sense, what is real for them, and the fellow who can speak their language.”
Friends such as Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher urged him to return to painting, but so strong...
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