Romare Bearden (1911-1988) was a versatile American artist, exploring many different media. Painting, printmaking and collage, caricature, set design, writing and songwriting were all part of his work.
Bearden grew up in Harlem, and his family home “became a meeting place for Harlem Renaissance luminaries” ¹, including writers, painters and Jazz musicians. He also was a social worker in New York City, even after he achieved artistic success². These influences can be seen in his collages, as many portray daily life in Harlem, or Jazz club scenes:
1974 acrylic and pencil on paper and printed paper on paperboard 36 x 48 in. (91.4 x 121.9 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Museum purchase in part through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment 1996.71 Not currently on view
As Biography.com said, “his works depict aspects of family culture in a semiabstract (sic) collage and Cubist style“³. Spring Way is a good example of this, with its contrast of dark realism seen in the black and white street photos, versus the pops of brightly colored shapes:
1964 collage on paperboard sheet and image: 6 5/8 x 9 3/8 in. (16.8 x 23.8 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design 1999.9 Not currently on view
The Block is one of Beaden’s most famous works, currently residing, though not on view, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. I can’t reproduce the image here, due to licensing restrictions, but the Met has an inter-active site, Let’s Walk the Block, that allows for close examination of the whole work.
It is a fascinating, beautiful piece, from 1971, a large collage, on six panels, measuring 4×18′. Each panel shows a different aspect of city life, as Bearden saw it from a friend’s window, though he moved away from a literal interpretation, to a more imaginative one (http://metmuseum.org/content/interactives/the_block/foot5.html).
I find the range of street life represented fascinating. At the beginning, there are families and well-dressed people outside a neighborhood liquor store, while upstairs you see children in a room with a mousetrap for a window shade. The third panel depicts a funeral, complete with angels helping the soul to heaven. More religious imagery can be seen in the fourth panel, where an angel is blessing an unborn child, contrasting the primary colors and simple shapes of the next building.
There is an ironic touch of having a church in the fourth panel, while homeless people are being frowned upon in front of the next building. The windows above the barber shop contain slightly disturbing images, perhaps representing the darker side of the city, and conveyed by Bearden’s use of muddier colors and less crisp lines. The use of different panels disrupts the flow of the scene, perhaps to add the chaotic feel of city life.
Bearden was a strong voice for African-American artists and culture, as well as being an incredibly diverse artist, though I chose to focus only on his collages. I found his life very interesting and his work fascinating and inspiring.
Corlett, M.L. (2009) From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden. New York: Romare Bearden Foundation/ California: Pomegranite Communications
Romare Bearden. [Internet]. Available from http://www.romare-bearden.com/ [Accessed 07 Oct 2014].
Romare Bearden Foundation. [Internet]. The Bearden Foundation. Available from: http://www.beardenfoundation.org/index2.shtml [Accessed 07 Oct 2014].
Let’s Walk the Block. [Internet]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available from: http://metmuseum.org/metmedia/interactives/art-trek/romare-bearden-lets-walk-the-block [Accessed 07 Oct 2014].
Spring Way. [Internet]. Available from: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=37393 [Accessed 07 Oct 2014].
The Art of Romare Bearden. [Internet]. National Gallery of Art. Available from: http://www.nga.gov/feature/bearden/index.shtm [Accessed 07 Oct 2014].
Romare Howard Bearden. [Internet]. 2014. The Biography.com website. Available from: http://www.biography.com/people/romare-bearden-40540 [Accessed 07 Oct 2014].