Bearden has, “the aware[ness] that the true artist destroys the accepted world by way of revealing the unseen, and creating that which is new and uniquely his own. [He] has used cubist techniques to his own ingenious effect.” ~Ralph Ellison
If visual art could have a soundtrack— and a rhythm—it would likely be found in the work of Romare Bearden. The groove of Duke Ellington’s jazz beat and the melodic improvizing of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos are captured, but barely tamed, in the multi-layered, often surreal imagery of Bearden’s Harlem street scenes. Today, the foundation representing the life and work of Romare Bearden, and the city’s Studio Museum in Harlem, with a growing collection of his paintings, prints and collages on permanent display, sit just blocks away from the famed Apollo Theater, in the heart of New York’s Harlem neighborhoods. On a sun-lit January day, I navigated the broad, busy streets of the city at the intersection of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (Seventh Ave.)—once the epicenter of an unfolding drama for African-Americans pursuing the American dream—to meet with the team at the Romare Bearden Foundation and learn more about this towering figure of 20th century art. artes fine arts magazine
The Harlem Renaissance would not have been the same without the inclusion of the Bearden family. Son of a well-educated and economically successful black family from the South, prevailing Jim Crow laws made life increasingly difficult in their home state of North Carolina. As a result, Bearden, at age three, became part of the Great Migration north, settling in New York City in 1914. There, his mother, Bessye was a social and political activist and New York correspondent for the African-American newspaper, Chicago Defender; while his father, 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 lives were centered in the intellectual, artistic, and political mainstream of the burgeoning Harlem intellectual community of the time: among their friends were writer Countee Cullen; musician and cousin, 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 early interest in art and, specifically cartooning, was sparked by experiences during a year of studies in science and mathematics at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Bearden went on to study art and art education, including two years at Boston University, and took courses with German-born artist George Grosz at the Art Students League, finally graduating with a degree in education from New York University. There he had been a lead cartoonist and then art editor for the college’s monthly journal The Medley. The first of his many journal covers was published during his university years as well as the first of numerous texts he would write on social and artistic issues. Between 1935 and 1937 he was a weekly editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Afro-American.
Decades later, author (Invisible Man [1947-52]) and activist, Ralph Ellison—a life-long friend—wrote of Bearden’s earlier work in an introduction to a 1968 exhibition of paintings and Projections in Albany, NY. There he described Bearden rendering scenes from the Depression in a style influenced by the Mexican muralists (e.g. social activist and Marxist-leaning, Diego Rivera). “This work was powerful, the scenes grim and brooding, and through his depiction of unemployed workingmen in Harlem he was able, while evoking the Southern past, to move beyond the usual protest painting of that period to reveal something of the universal elements of an abiding human condition. By striving to depict the times, by reducing scene, character and atmosphere to a style, he caught both the universality of Harlem life and the harlemness of the national human predicament” [Ellison:676].
Employed by the New York City Department of Social Services, Bearden worked as an artist in his studio on weekends and evenings. He had his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940 and his first solo show in a major mainstream gallery (in Washington, D.C.) in 1944. Additionally, 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 all-black 372nd Infantry Division until war’s end. During the late 1940s, his work was shown at the Samuel Kootz Gallery in Manhattan, which also represented prominent artists, like Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, and Robert Motherwell.
In 1950, Bearden used the G.I. Bill to travel to Paris, France, for several months. There he studied literature, philosophy, Buddhism, and spent many hours in museums, not only in France but in Italy and Spain, as well. Back in New York, he returned to his job at the Department of Social Services where he worked through 1969.
In that same 1968 essay, Ellison recalls Bearden’s growth as an artist during this period as he had, “…become interested in myth and ritual as potent forms for ordering human experience, and … by stepping back from the immediacy of the Harlem experience—which he knew both from his boyhood and as a social worker—he was freed to give expression to the essentially poetic side of his vision. The products of this period were […] brightly sensual. And despite their having been consciously influenced by the compositional patterns of the Italian primitives and the Dutch masters, these works were also resolutely abstract” [Ellison:676]. It was at this stage in his career that he expanded on his new artistic vocabulary, with its own organizational rules, but with a unifying philosophy incorporating the union of rituals and myths binding cultures and generations. Bearden named this philosophy the ‘Prevalence of Ritual’ and it served as the unifying force in his art for the remainder of his career—serving as a bridge between Black culture and universal truth.
Placing artist, Romare Bearden and author, Ralph Ellison in the same narrative framework speaks volumes of their shared concerns for the representation of the image of African-Americans on the ‘canvas’ of history. In Invisible Man, Ellison explores the theme of man’s search for his identity and place in society, as seen from the perspective of an unnamed black male in the New York City of the 1930s. Through his protagonist, Ellison explores the contrasts between the Northern and Southern varieties of racism and their alienating effect. The narrator is “invisible” in a figurative sense, in that “people refuse to see” him, and also experiences a series of alienating encounters. Ellison, like Bearden drew from a creative source that was passionate, well-educated, articulate and self-aware. And like Ellison, his artistic ‘voice’ expanded in range and thematic focus in the 1940s and beyond refining and expanding his working style, becoming more confident as an artist with something important to say. But, while prepared to give Bearden his due as a skilled member of the New York artistic community, critics and gallerists of the day saw little reason to distinguish his idiosyncratic paintings from the host of other artists caught up in the Abstract Expressionist movement, followed later by Minimalism and the Pop Art style, dominating the New York gallery scene in the two decades following the war.
It was only in 1964, at the age of 53, that Bearden abruptly abandoned his non-objective oil painting and began to produce collages. Mary Schmidt Campbell, Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, New York City, at the time, would write for a Bearden retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1991), “[They were] works filled with cryptic figures and a dense symbolism that looked like nothing else in American art. Having lived with a number of different ideas of art, he had come back to the subject matter he had started out with—Black American life as he remembered it in the South on his childhood in North Carolina, and in the North of his coming of age in Pittsburgh and Harlem and, later in life, the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Bearden’s use of collage made everything in his career up to then, seem to have been a restless search culminating in his discovery of collage and rediscovery of the value of his own life and culture. It was like an aging explorer who finally had stumbled upon the shores of a new, long-sought territory, and, for the next twenty-five years until his death in 1988, Bearden set out to explore this new world and in his words to ‘establish a world through art in which the validity of my negro experience would live and make its own logic’” [Campbell:8].
In parallel fashion, Ellison had sought verbal constructs and fictional encounters (highly symbolized, but bearing oblique similarities with contemporaneous events and people in 1940s Harlem) and for his nameless protagonist in Invisible Man. The author, assured over decades of the artist’s kindred spirit, would describe Bearden’s images as, “abiding rituals and ceremonies of affirmation.” And like Ellison’s writings from the same period, according to Conwill, “Bearden’s own phrase, the ‘Prevalence of Ritual,’ underscored the continuity of a culture’s ceremonies, marking the traditions and values that connect one generation to another, ceremonies that are universal, archetypal in their forms. Instead of painting mere genre scenes—the exterior landscape of events and people—Bearden chose to penetrate the interior of the lives he portrayed and, having pierced the skin of those day-to-day lives, connect his people and events to larger, more universal themes”[Campbell:9].
Also like Ellison’s writings, Bearden found in the medium of collage a methodology that allowed him to assimilate much of his life experience. His social conscience ran deep and he sought in his work a way to make pictures that transcended social propaganda. From rural landscapes capturing the images of utter poverty and his memories of tenant farmers and conjure women to crowded Harlem street scenes where an undertow of tension and pent-up violence seems palpable and omnipresent; to smoke-filled and ebullient jazz sessions, where music becomes the salve for lives lived in the shadow of despair, Bearden seems to possess the visual lexicon for it all. Black popular culture theoretician, Stuart Hall, describes the environment that Bearden captures through his art as, “a contradictory space. It is a site of strategic contestation. But it can never be simplified or explained in terms of the simple binary oppositions that are habitually used to map it out: High and low; resistance versus incorporation; authentic versus inauthentic; experiential versus formal; opposition versus homogenization”[Hall:28].
Critic, Thelma Golden claims that Bearden’s art “is situated within the space created by these binaries. By revealing the tension between these opposites, he opens the dialogue for further understanding of black culture. Bearden’s work can only be fully understood as the product of the formal, structural, thematic, and historical motivations” [Golden:40]. Art historian and critic, Gail Gelburd, lends credence to this view by pointing out that Bearden eschewed the concerns of his contemporaries, as they sought to promulgate social change through their creative efforts, by adopting a decidedly apolitical role. “Bearden, who spent his early career making political cartoons and who studied the politically-oriented work of his one-time teacher, George Grosz…went on to develop his Projections and Photomontages as the articulation of his attitudes as an artist toward political and social upheaval” [Gelburd:20]. Other experts close to the artist at the time claim that, while Bearden created during a contentious period in American history, his work was decidedly apolitical.
Returning to the Ellison essay accompanying Bearden’s 1968 exhibit, this life-long friend of the artist spoke eloquently to his purpose by underscoring his decision to interpret the world artistically, and not confront it through propaganda or sentimentality. Ellison claimed that Western values regarding the significance of art and those artists producing it was largely defined by mainstream culture, rendering the techniques and history behind Negro artistic endeavors irrelevant. In other words, racial separatism was , until that time, defining the place of black artists and writers in the Pantheon of history by largely dismissing them. Ellison reported that Bearden would observe, “’Turn Picasso into a Negro and then let me see how far he can go,’ because he feels an irremediable conflict between his identity as a member of an embattled social minority and his freedom as an artist” [Ellison:675].
While not overlooking the complexity of the challenge facing Bearden during the formidable years of the 1960s and beyond, he was confronted by the perplexing question of how to bring his art to bear in the context of largely-abstracted, post-modernist trends and a Eurocentric cultural playing field? On the task of defining Negro-American identity—pressing his claim for recognition from the inside, as it were—while still remaining true to his heritage, Bearden ‘s work evolved in very personal ways by remaking the visual representation of the black face. By personifying and particularizing the form and figure of Negro men and women through his collage work, he was able to synthesize an identity steeped in heritage and hardship, but elevated by his subtle visual cues of composition and motif, honed by years of classical arts study and training. According to professor of literature, Robert O’Meally, (addressing the ‘flatness’ found in Bearden’s collages as evidence, in part, of African and Asian influences) “looked backward to ancient as well as to early 20th century cubist and non-objective painting, as he created a unique body of art in his own idiomatic style”[O’Meally:21]. While Ellison’s Invisible Man went unnamed throughout the novel, and for whom the act of being seen, or revealed, was both an ongoing struggle and an act of defiance, Bearden’s multi-layered and often surreal figures offer a reconfigured visual representation of the Black America he knew and invited all viewers, irrespective of race, to integrate into their pre-conceived notions.
Bearden’s photomontages represent a juxtaposition of image fragments and textures, literally torn from the publications of the day, combined with handmade papers and surface treatments employed by the artist for dramatic effect. By destabilizing preconceptions of ‘blackness’ and re-assembling them in ways that alter the message, Bearden succeeds in transforming and redefining Hall’s ‘polarities’ into a powerful alloy—one that offers unexpected strength and resilience to black identity. While his images ultimately reside outside the realm of the traditional, familiar fragmented compositional elements and thematic motifs allow the viewer to connect to the work and consider this new ‘language’ without having to fictionalize or romanticize the messaging or the messenger (viz. Ellison, “…destroying the accepted world by way of revealing the unseen). According to Kimberly Lamm, who compared and contrasted the work of Ellison and Bearden in the context of black male identity, Images of different individuals are spliced together to make a representation of one person, calling attention to the restless and continual construction of cultural perception, image, and subjectivity. Indeed, Bearden’s figures are never completely revealed—never completely visible or invisible—but suggest instead the inter-subjective, inter-collective, and continual process of identity construction” [Lamm:822-23]. She adds, “It is Bearden’s attention to individual acts of looking that links [his] disparate figures into a loose-knot cultural cohesion. […] What Bearden divulges is a restless drama of construction and deconstruction that continually complicates [Ellison’s] binaries of visibility and invisibility, continually rejects and redefines visual forms that ‘document’ the complexity of black culture into fixed perpetual forms” [Lamm:824]. In Ellison’s essay on Bearden, he refers to this as, “[Bearden’s] agonizing fixation upon the racial mysteries and social realities dramatized by color, facial structure and the texture of negro skin and hair” [Ellison:677].
This critique began by drawing parallels between Bearden’s creative output and the jazz music that was so much a part of his life and times. With a clearer understand of the nature of his creative output, it is instructional to consider the influence that music played in the artist’s life. Here too, a strong bond existed between Bearden and Ralph Ellison on the significance of the black musical idiom in an evolving cultural identity. Ellison called it “the poetry of the blues…projected through synthetic forms,’’ many of which regularly found their way into Bearden’s work. Not merely a tragic-comic narrative style that could act as a source of entertainment or group identification, music for Bearden was an integral part of how he viewed the creative process. For him, his collages were jazz performances captured in the moment.
According to Diedra Harris-Kelley—‘Uncle Romie’ to her—“Bearden himself insisted that he structured his paintings and collages as if they were jazz compositions.” She explains that Bearden had a life-long interest in music and, in fact, took up songwriting because he thought it might allow him to earn enough money to return to Paris to continue studying art. “He did publish about twenty songs, even managing to get a hit, Seabreeze, a romantic ballad recorded by Billie Eckstine in 1954” [Harris-Kelley:250].
But when we think of Bearden, we think of jazz. Harris-Kelley tells me that he structured his art like the music he listened to. Like jazz, his collage work was layered and fractured like the music, but always made into a unified whole. “This layering was both literal and metaphorical—becoming a powerful commentary on black culture. In her article, Revisiting Romare Bearden’s Art of Improvisation, she notes that, “Given his broad knowledge of American culture, it seems logical to me that he was thinking of the fundamentals of this very radical, very modern American music and how it could be applied to his work. In an article by Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker , he said, ‘I take a sheet of paper and just make lines while I listen to records…a kind of shorthand to pick up the rhythm and intervals. He said that American cubist painter Stuart Davis listened to jazz musician Earl Hines for the intervals. Hines made the pauses between notes into something important. The silences were as expressive as the sounds’” [Harris-Kelley:250-1].
Of ‘Uncle’ Romie’s creative process, Harris-Kelley says, “I doubt Bearden was only thinking about rhythm and silences between the notes.” In a piece like The Block, “…I think of the buildings in tonal terms—I see the pink building on the left sounding a chord in the high register; it moves to the gray, deeper tone; then the lighter gray; to the dynamic phrase in the middle—all as one instrument. So I think Bearden was talking about intervals moving through different pitches. […] I think he put those brilliant colors down because he knew he was going to chop them up. He knew that he would lay other things down on top and was performing improvisation more like a conductor than a single instrumentalist. When I think of him listening to Earl Hines and talking about the spaces, I think he’s the piano player playing this phrase, and then he leaves a space, plays another set of notes, followed by another section…he is the leader of a big band, pulling some instruments in and easing others back” [Harris-Kelley:253].
Harris-Kelley recalls Bearden’s describing his process to create Piano Lesson: “I’ve seen some of Goya’s paintings where the underneath ground predominated over half the painting, and then he would, say, weave a certain blue color here and develop those things that he wanted to highlight. So I would let the ground play through and then what I put there, the thing I lay down, I try to put in proportion to the overall size- in the same ratio. And then in this, I did something that I don’t usually do. You see I tipped it to lay the piano in a kind of perspective going this way, and to compensate for that, I had to bring things back onto the frontal plane”[Harris-Kelley:254].
In a 1983 essay (five years before Bearden’s death), Michelle Wallace asks, Why Are There No Great Black Artists? Playing to Ellison’s disquisition regarding the propensity for society to conceal the black man “by time, by custom, and by our trained incapacity to perceive the truth,” she cautions that while, “images of blackness are ubiquitous in American culture, African-American visual artists are, for the most part, critically and institutionally ignored, resulting in a mostly invisible black visuality” and as Lamm notes in her comments on Wallace’s essay, “an imprecise, undertheorized account of the way images of race transform so swiftly into well-known rhetorics and myths. Surprisingly Wallace argues that visual artists have been occluded by the cultural emphasis on African-American music, which she describes as the ‘the founding discourse of African-American experience’” [Wallace:344].
Wallace states, “I am at war with music, to the extent that it completely defines the parameters of intellectual discourse in the African-American community.” Serving as a metaphor for African-American artistic production, “[it] stifles and represses most of the potential for understanding the visual in African-American culture” [Wallace:345]. Lamm notes that, “Wallace’s claim acquires even more significance when we consider that one of the most prevalent visual representations of the black male is the image of the musician” [Lamm:818].
Yet Ellison, who was such an admirer of Bearden, frequently relied on music as a metaphor in Invisible Man to underscore the improvisational, dynamic compositional features of black identity, linked to the search for visibility and cultural authenticity in a hostile, manipulative world. While hidden in a coal cellar, Ellison’s eponymous protagonist claims, in the novel’s prologue, “I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue’ all at the same time. One recording won’t do. When I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body.” This musical theme becomes the leitmotif for the entire novel as he variously appropriates, attempts to transform, subverts, or succumbs to—slowly recognizing that it is an established order from which there can be no real escape. But Ellison, like Bearden, recognized that jazz also had redemptive value—a malleable apparatus that served as a springboard for enhanced self-awareness and symbolic cultural cohesion; its curative powers inchoate in the very nature of its fluidity and re-inventiveness.
Diedra Harris-Kelley issues a cautionary note regarding what she refers to as “the easy analogy between playing jazz and making visual art. While I do think there are profound links between Bearden’s approach to collage and jazz improvisation, I also think the analogy doesn’t account for differences in genre and technique. By not accounting for these differences, we risk obscuring more about Bearden’s process than we might reveal. We might even miss what is most ‘jazzlike’ about his work”[Harris-Kelly:249].
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
*All Bearden Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Listen to the Cincinnati Orchestra, with Barry Lee Hall on trumpet, perform Duke Ellington’s Echoes of Harlem, with Romare Bearden illustrations:
Campbell , Mary Schmidt. “History and the Art of Romare Bearden,” in Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden 1940-1987. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem; Oxford University Press (1991).
Ellison, Ralph, “The Art of Romare Bearden,” Massachusetts Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, (Winter 1977), pgs 673-680.
Gelburd, Gail and Thelma Golden. Romare Bearden in Black and White: Photomontage Projections 1964. New York” Whitney Museum of American Art & Harry N. Abrams, Inc, New York (1997).
Harris-Kelly, Diedra. “Revisiting Romare Bearden’s Art of Improvisation,” in Uptown Conversations: The New Jazz Studies. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards & Farah Jasmine Griffin, Ed. New York: Columbia University Press (2004).
Lamm, Kimberly. “Visuality and Black Masculinity in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Romare Bearden’s Photomontages,” Calaloo, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2003), pgs 813-835.
O’Meally, Robert G. Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. New York: D C Moore Gallery (2007).
Anderson-Spivy, Alexandra. Romare Bearden: A Modern Classic. New York: ACA Galleries (1991).
Fine, Ruth and Jacqueline Francis, Ed. Romare Bearden: American Modernist. Washington: National Gallery of Art & Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (2011)
Fine, Ruth, et.al. The Art of Romare Bearden. Washington: National Gallery of Art & Harry N. Abrams, Inc, New York (2003).