By Nathan A. Scott, Jr.
Callaloo Vol. 11 No. 3, p.420-422
Those of us who are attached to Callaloo, the editors and the members of the editorial staff, felt a sense of great loss when the sad news came in early March of Romare Bearden's death in New York City at the age of seventy-five, for, apart from Jacob Lawrence, no other painter of our time had so richly and beautifully rendered the life of black Americans. Indeed, it may be said that, as an artist, he had but one subject-which was the people of his ancestral community. Though his career as a painter extended back to the late 1930s, the period of his great masterpieces is that which began with the advent of the 1960s and which carried him in the full tide of his work through to the end of his life. And what is in part so immediately notable about the hundreds of extraordinary compositions that poured out of his Canal Street studio in New York during these years is the consistency with which they are dedicated to the human figure. Moreover, la présence humaine in his drawings and collages and oils on paper and prints is always black. Often his figures are black proletarians on the streets of Harlem or black jazz musicians turning a tune inside out in a fiery session. Bearden's human material embraces a very considerable variousness, and everywhere it is handled at once with reverence and elegance, as though the human figure were for him in the most exact sense a sacramental reality, "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Which suggests an arresting contrast between the ethos of his work and that of many of his contemporaries-say, such artists as the English painters Francis Backon and Lucian Freud-for whom the human image appears often to be but a sign of iniquity.
It was once customary for certain black artists of his generation to suppose that the gesture of protest against the deprivations traditionally imposed upon their people was to be performed by reproducing as literalistically as possible whatever there was of dreariness and defeat in the social actualities of black life. But, being a true product of the modernist insurgency, Bearden always took it for granted that the artist ats upon his object by distancing and stylizing it, and, in this, he took the fullest possible advantage of the funded technical resources of his craft. The vocabulary of his art is manifestly indebted to the legacies of many of the great classic modernists-Gauguin and Matisse and Braque and Derain. And, of course, beyond all others, Bearden was indebted to Picasso, to his invention of the techniques of collage and to his appropriation of the forms of African sculpture (as is quintessentially instanced, for example, in his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907). Nor should one fail to remark the formative influence exerted upon him by such painters on the American scene as Stuart Davis and the German émigré George Grosz, his teacher in the years of his apprenticeship at the Art Students League in New York. And the brilliant book of 1969, The Painter's Mind, which he wrote in collaboration with his friend, the painter Carl Holty, impressively documents how deeply he had studied the entire history of his art, from classic Chinese painting to the monuments of the High Renaissance in Italy, from the Mannerists of the late sixteenth century (Tintoretto, El Greco, Veronese) to the masters of the Baroque in Italy (Caravaggio) and Flanders (Rubens, Van Dyck) and Holland (Frans Hals, Rembrandt), and from the great Neoclassical and Romantic artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the Realists and Impressionists to all the central figures since Cézanne.
But, though his visual education was at once broad and deep, Bearden was never in any way given merely to imitating illustrious predecessors, and whatever he pondered he made his own. Indeed, his mastery, for example, of collage and photomontage was something so distinctively marked by his own stylistic signature that, once one has performed an act of true attention before a few of his paintings, any other work of his is instantly recognizable as "a Bearden." In large measure this is so because his tutelage under the masters of European modernism was deeply mingled with what may have been an even profounder absorption of jazz and blues musical idioms which, in their radical way of improvising cacophony and dissonance into new patterns of rhythmic order by "fooling around with the beat," offered Bearden aural analogies of the kind of dynamism he wanted to convey in visual terms. And it is such a dynamism that gives to the ceremonial, ritualistic arrangements of his pictures their very special charm and power.
In regard to the question as to what "a Bearden" really is, Albert Murray's answer cannot be improved upon: it is, he says (in an essay contributed to the Catalogue for the Bearden exhibition mounted by the Mint Museum of Charlotte, North Carolina, in the autumn of 1980), a "design or ornament or decoration for a wall, where it may hang not primarily as a record but as an emblem or badge or shield or flag or banner or pennant. . . . And of what is A Bearden emblematic if not the fundamental rituals of the blues idiom and the way it conditions one to survive?-(with one's humanity, including one's sense of humor, intact. . . )." Indeed, "a Bearden," says Mr. Murray, "works on the beholder not only as a work of art but as something even deeper: a totemistic device and talisman for keeping the blues at bay."
Or, as Dore Ashton says (in an essay also contributed to the Mint Museum's Catalogue), his paintings are animated by "his desire to tell"-by his desire to tell whereof it is that the human spirit may prevail with grace and dignity, despite the pressures of untoward circumstance. And it was something of this that I surmised an elderly Negro couple to have descried one Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1981. My wife and I had driven over from Charlottesville to Richmond to see the great exhibition of Bearden's work of the 1970s that had been arranged by the Mint Museum and that was then to be seen in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And, as we entered the Museum, I noticed this couple who were just ahead of us. They were people, as I thought, in their late seventies and, clearly, not accustomed to the precincts of a large museum, though they in no way appeared to be intimidated by their surroundings. They were well dressed, turned out, as I imagined, in their Sunday finery; and their demeanor was that of people whose style of life is an affair of gentility and decorum. My immdediate feeling was simply that of being glad that they were on hand, and then my attention was claimed by all the splendor that was on the walls. But, after a half-hour or so, I noticed them again and remarked the intensity and joyousness of their viewing. And I was touched by the husband's wy of gently nudgin ghis wife with his elbow as he pointed to Farewell Eugene or Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket or Southern Limited or Madam's White Bird and by how she would nod her head and quietly laugh at whatever it was he had said. Then, over the next hour, I noticed how they would return to this or that collage, sometimes gazing upon it in silence and sometimes breaking into spirited conversation with each other. And when my wife and I departed, after well over two hours, we left behind this old couple, still enwrapt in their transport. It was a moving little drama, and one felt that the authenticity of what Bearden's art was "telling" was by way of being proved on the pulses of these simple people who were utterly enchanted by the trenchancy of his rehearsal of the experience of black Americans.
Now it is the end that his death has brought to this mythic power of "telling" that we lament, for it added a greatness to the American art of our time in the way that only genius can. But, at the same time, we rejoice in the abundance of completed work he bequeathes us and in the prodigality with which it will fecundate the American imagination over the years to come. "Earth, receive an honored guest. . . . "
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