Romare Bearden was born in 1912 in Charlotte, North Carolina to a nurturing family. His family joined the Great Migration, moving to New York City around 1915, where they became prominent in the cultural and political life of Harlem. He attended Lincoln University, Boston University, Columbia University, and New York University, from which he graduated in 1935. His formal art training began in the 1930s under the tutelage of German artist, George Grosz, at The Art Students League of New York. His body of work featured Cubist standards and Abstract Expressionist ideals, but he is most known for his complex and colorful collages. Bearden’s collages and paintings feature vignettes of the African American life, especially urban life in New York City. His work reflects the 20th century journey from rural to urban environments, not only the Great Migration of African Americans, but also the change in America as a whole. During the 1960s, Bearden’s collages featured real photographs of African Americans from the media; he wanted to recreate the African American self-image, taking the negative and turning it into positive statements of economic, political and social empowerment of African Americans.
Collage of various papers with foil, paint and graphite on fiberboard (1977).
Part of the Circe Series, featuring Homer’s The Odyssey. The Odyssey, X, 233-235 reads, “She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion…but put into the mixture malignant drugs, to make them forgetful of their own country.”
In 1977, Bearden created twenty collages based on episodes from The Odyssey, an ancient Greek poem by Homer. Besides work featuring the culture and lifestyle of African Americans, Bearden also had an interest in classical themes and also created drawings based on The Iliad. The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus and his crew after the Trojan War and their challenge-filled search for their home, the island of Ithaca. Behind the characters of the Greek characters, Bearden identified a link with the black American’s search for home, a central theme to African American migration. Odysseus’s ancient quest can also be compared to the black artist searching for a place in American art, the search to be recognized as a true artist. Bearden found the subject matter and imagery to be universal and actually reinterpreted the epic’s setting to be more North African than Greek, containing lush environments populated by dark-skinned figures, a feature of both classical myth and African American culture.
Three Folk Musicians
Collage of various papers with paint and graphite on canvas (1967).
This artwork takes memories from Bearden’s childhood in Charlotte and combines them with later memories of Harlem in the 1930s. On the other hand, it also functions as a metaphor of African American culture in general, portraying musical tradition of the rural south which is signified by the overalls worn by the figure on the right as well as the term “folk” in the title, and this tradition’s transition to the industrial North. The piece exhibits black creativity that, although modified, survived the migration of African Americans from Southern America to the north. Bearden had a passion for music as well as art, and the influence of Harlem’s popular jazz music is very apparent in many of Bearden’s pieces. This artwork displays the historical aspect of African American musical tradition. Bearden believed that both art and jazz music should be heavily improvised, which is portrayed best in his use of improvisation of combining various materials into a collage.