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The Art of Romare Bearden

Many artists and art historians consider Romare Bearden one of America's most important and inventive artists. But he's hardly a household name. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that the National Gallery of Art intends to change that. Bearden is the subject of the gallery's first major retrospective of an African-American artist.

Bearden's primary medium was the collage, fusing painting, magazine clippings, old paper and fabric, like a jigsaw puzzle in upheaval. But unlike a puzzle, each piece of a Bearden collage has a meaning and history all its own. Shortly before he died of cancer in 1988, Bearden said working with fragments of the past brought them into the now.

"When I conjure these memories, they are of the present to me," he explained. "Because after all, the artist is a kind of enchanter in time."

Bearden took snippets of Harlem life and shot them through with vivid images of the American South. His family moved from Mecklenburg, N.C., in 1914 when he was a toddler, and he grew up in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Bearden's mother was a dashing figure, a reporter for a leading black newspaper. Family friends included luminaries such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and famous musicians who helped ignite Bearden's passion for jazz. One of Bearden's first patrons would Duke Ellington. Much later, he designed a record cover for Wynton Marsalis.

Marsalis' brother Branford produced a jazz album that pays tribute to Bearden. Branford Marsalis says jazz is a collage of sorts -- in its swirl of musical forms -- and Bearden's Harlem was a collage of regions.

"When he got to Harlem," says Marsalis, "You had this migration with people leaving the South and moving North, so Harlem at that time was still very much Southern."

Bearden's collages bring to mind the pleasing graphic unity of patchwork quilts, into which slaves once sewed coded messages about the Underground Railroad. Meaning literally came out of the seams. Bearden's dense, multilayered art nodded toward codes and complexity. They were cut, etched and painted with magazine photos from Life, Ebony and Look, recalling rural Southern shanties papered with newspaper clippings. Marsalis says one favorite work by Bearden shows a Harlem street.

"All of these images of Harlem life," says Marsalis, "Louis Armstrong's in it, in the middle there's a guy in overalls, which you would look at it, and you think, 'That didn't belong,' but at that time, it certainly did belong."

What first seems an explosion of images quickly settles into a meaningful evocation of place. Bearden's faces catch your eye and won't let you look away. Each is a composite of perhaps two, three or even half a dozen facial fragments.

National Gallery of Art curator Ruth Fine says it's as if Bearden wanted each face to embody a lifetime.

Bearden was an imposing presence. He was a World War II veteran, and in college he was tapped for a career in pro baseball. But painter Cedric Baker says he was struck by Bearden's manner.

"It's a very delicate process to use those materials in those ways," Baker says. "It's very precise. It requires I think a very delicate touch and sensitivity, and I think that's part of his personality that came out in the softness he displayed."

The exhibit, The Art of Romare Bearden, opens Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C. at the National Gallery and goes on tour next year.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.