African History Manifests Artistry

“As a Negro … I do not need to go looking for ‘happenings,’ the absurd or the surreal because I have seen things that neither Dali, Beckett, Ionesco, nor any of the others could have thought possible.” – Romare Bearden

The artist Romare Bearden lived through the Harlem Renaissance and modern Civil Rights Movement. For years, Romare could work on his art only during his spare time, and it was not until after his 60th birthday he was able to earn enough money through art sales to work full time in his studio. Throughout his life, Bearden absorbed works of art, poetry, philosophy, politics, religion and ancient literature into his psyche and then incorporated them into his own works of art, which were also dominated by themes relating to the streets of Harlem.

The Art of Romare Bearden, now on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, is the most widespread public display of Bearden’s work. It is also the first time the gallery has featured a black artist in a solo retrospective. Fifteen years after his death, Bearden’s work is as compelling as ever. This exhibit is a prime opportunity to view his multi-media collages of thematic and artistic work. Bearden created his art using a variety of different materials, ranging from mere Photostats to complex collages. Some compositions offer a number of viewing points, such as “Untitled,” which includes a collage of various papers with paint, graphite and surface abrasion on one side (recto) and a cautiously arranged reverse side with all newspaper print (vecto). Pieces such as “Untitled” are Bearden’s most stirring.

While widely known for his elaborate images depicting African life and traditions, Bearden’s other pieces on display are equally eye-catching. Of the Blues: At the Savoy, a collage depicting northern and southern musical styles – jazz and the blues – portrays its dancing subject with such dazzling colors and curves that the piece is simply mesmerizing.

Scattered on the walls of the exhibit are several collaborations, which project another way of balancing narrative subjects with modernist abstraction. Prelude to Troy, created in collage and print (called the collagraph method), is based on Lucas Cranach’s painting, The Judgment of Paris (1528). The printing surface is made from layers of cardboard, with streams of glue that create bubbled shapes as they dry. These shapes then became visible throughout the landscape behind the primary figures. Finally, the surface is coated with a synthetic to contain the printing ink. The simplicity of color, combined with the complexity and layers of material encompassed within the design, quietly demands attention without assaulting the senses.

Toward the end of his career, Bearden’s began to incorporate more fluid and “painterly” surfaces into his art. His collages gradually evolved into paintings on paper aggregates, and it is these later works that truly capture the artist’s mastery for the hybrid of materials.

The National Gallery of Art, located between 3rd and 9th streets on Constitution Avenue, is open Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.

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