Romare Bearden

Featured in Aesthetics Lessons
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Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memories, 1984, collage on board, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ronald R. Davenport and Mr. and Mrs. Milton A. Washington © Romare Bearden / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Romare Bearden’s collages depicting the richness and texture of African-American life are his best known works. With lively colors and compositions and themes of everyday life, family and religion, these works affected perceptions of African-Americans during a turbulent period of social change. Unlike previous masters of the collage form who used images in their original size, Bearden created small collages and then used photography to enlarge them. Reviewers hailed them as “‘startling,’ ‘emphatic,’ ‘moving,’ ‘memorable’ and ‘propagandistic in the best sense.’” [1] Bearden’s collages, and later collage-paintings, also provided African-Americans with emotionally powerful images and experiences that came from within their own culture and were like nothing ever seen before. Playwright August Wilson said, “What I saw was Black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness. It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of Black American life, but also its conscience.”[2] Bearden’s work is an example of the way in which artworks can move beyond art to become a force for positive social change.  

The form and style of Bearden’s visual work changed and developed throughout his career; from Social Realism to abstraction and back to figuration. In 1963, however, he joined Spiral, a group of artists devoted specifically to black subjects and took up collage as his primary medium of expression. Over the next decade, Bearden depicted life in the streets of Harlem in a fractured, jazzy, sometimes frenetic style that owed something to both Cubism and African art. Sometimes he turned as well to the steel mills he knew from his childhood in Pittsburgh, but his generalized treatment of these scenes was never recognizable as autobiographical. In the late 1970s, however, Bearden focused on his own memories.

 Pittsburgh Memories depicts the Lawrenceville rooming house of Bearden’s grandmother in early morning or evening. A man carrying a lunch box departs for work, and a woman prepares food for another man and a child inside. This collage reflects a complex mixture of 20th-century expressive forms and the half-real, half-ideal worlds depicted in 14th-century Italian art, which Bearden had admired and studied years before. Although the light in the room falls in fractured planes in the manner of Cubist paintings, the subject itself has no modernist distortions. The space, however, is not rational with both the inside and outside of the house visible at once. The faces at the windows are much larger than the figures below, and the sky’s deep blue color behind them is at odds with the dawn or twilight in the rest of the sky. Bearden depicted the space itself as almost flat, without the orthogonal lines of recession found in Western painting after the Renaissance.

Bearden once said that his artistic purpose was “to redefine the image of man in the terms of the Negro experience I know best,” and Pittsburgh Memories and other recent works of Bearden’s do depict a sense of timeless narrative. Although this scene is clearly from memory, it relays both the specific existence of a particular time and the implication that the action he depicts is quintessential and in some way continuing without end.

Comprehension Questions: 

  1. What are some of the cultural influences upon Bearden’s collages?
  2. When Bearden talks about creating a timeless narrative what do you think he means?
  3. Analyze Pittsburgh Memories. How might this work have been instrumental in affecting cultural views of African American life? Support your answer from clues in the artwork.
 
 

 [1] Michael Brenson quoted in “Bearden’s Art,” www.beardenfoundation.org 

 [2] August Wilson, “Introduction,” 134 (citation from http://www.augustwilson.net/Romare%20Bearden.htm)