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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Romare Bearden

 By and large, people choose to become artists. There are those, however, who seem to have that choice thrust upon them despite some effort to choose otherwise. Romare Bearden is an example. Except for a couple years studying at the Art Students League In New York during 1938-39, Bearden was self-taught. Self-taught does not mean uneducated of course. In fact, Bearden had a degree in mathematics. Beyond that, he studied philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne in Paris and read every book he could get his hands on about art making. His earliest work depicted his Southern experience as he struggled to come to terms with a stubborn creative streak that just would not go away. He didn't start out to be an artist, but there was no denying the creative impulses seemingly bred into his very African-American soul.

He Walks on Water, 1945,
Romare Bearden, one of
his earlier paintings
Romare was born in 1914 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and spent many of his childhood summers visiting relatives in Charlotte, even though he grew up deep in the black culture of New York's Harlem. His father was active in the New York arts scene and indeed, their apartment was always flowing with artists, writers, and musicians, which permeated his boyhood memories. Bearden's studies in Europe exposed him to the painters from the Dutch Haarlem, work by Pieter de Hooch, Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the twentieth century painter, Piet Mondrian. But he could no more deny his roots in Jazz and African-American visual images nor his interest in trains and female figures than he could have changed the color of his skin. This he blended with Synthetic Cubism, collage, a fondness for the "clean" freshness of Caribbean color, and an attachment for the use of photo-mechanically reproduced images. He created using a style all his own and a technical virtuosity allowing him to "paint" with everything from paper, to cloth, to the output from Xerox machines as well as traditional pigments.

Blue Lady, 1955, Romare Bearden
Bearden's work is about, as he put it, "...the life of my people as I know it..."  There is more "jazz" in Bearden's work than his frequent use of musicians and musical iconography.  Like jazz, he intended that his art should be open to interpretation. And also like jazz, his work is at times "hot" and at other times "cool" not in a coloristic sense but in its rhythms. Though not always obvious on the surface, there is much too of his fondness for Dutch Baroque painting. Even when he collages, one often senses a firm Dutch sensitivity to the stable, rectilinear composition, which gives his work a firm foundation upon which he builds an often hectic pattern of "jazzy" dynamic, musically or sexually loaded figures. 

Storyville, 1974, Romare Bearden
Being an artist is not easy, and being a black artist in a white America at a time when the civil rights struggle threatened to burn both cultures was especially wrenching for a man who never liked being considered a "black artist." There is no denying the Negro subject matter in his work nor the African-American rhythms, but the aesthetic sensibilities are just as often to be European, oriental, Caribbean, or perhaps just plain Bearden.

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