This work is a valuable resource for scholars and anyone else interested in Romare Bearden, art history, art techniques, the Harlem Renaissance (which Bearden calls the Black Renaissance because not all participants were in Harlem), and black US history. Robert O'Meally presents a wide range of sources and historical scholarship including Bearden's writing, art, and literary and musical scholarship. All the essays present work to give the readers a better understanding of the significances of Bearden's work (art, essays, plays, and music), especially in the context of Western art history and black arts. There are several books already written about and written by Bearden concerning his life and work, many of which are exhibition catalogues with extensive large plate photographs, such as those found in Myron Schwartzman's Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (1990) or Ruth Fine's The Art of Romare Bearden (2003). O'Meally draws together the major themes of Bearden scholarship, providing a useful jumping-off point for insight into Bearden and his work.
The book is divided into three sections, beginning, in Part I, with an overview of Bearden's life and the environments in which he lived and worked. Part II is a collection of significant essays written by Bearden that reflect on his creations and their relationship to the larger art world (including literature and music), giving special attention to the Harlem Renaissance and black African art. Part III presents essays by literary giants such as Toni Morrison, August Wilson, and Ralph Ellison, alongside prominent cultural critics such as Kobena Mercer, Sally Price, Richard Price, Richard J. Powell, and Albert Murray.
Each author works with different strands that influenced Bearden and examines how they informed his work. How he used color, his movement towards collage from painting, his ideas about repetition, and his subject matter all take on new meaning when reading the history revealed in this reader. One can certainly appreciate Bearden's plastic art casually. His visuals are striking and often derived from pancultural archetypes. The images resonate more once one discovers some of the history and reasoning that went into creating the pieces.
From the outset, O'Meally grounds the anthology in issues of identity and race. As he states, “The modern black American artist Romare Bearden's most urgently pursued subject was that of first-person identity, or, one might say, first-person identities. What does it mean to be ‘modern’? ‘Black’? or ‘American’? What does it mean to be an ‘artist’?” (p. 1).
Bearden had a rich background that included trans-Atlantic travel and exposure to ideas, literature, music, and imagery from many places. such as China. that he incorporated into his work. In Part I, we learn about Bearden's life history through a republished essay by Calvin Tomkins and an interview by Henri Ghent. Bearden's life has been well chronicled and O'Meally does a good job condensing the major themes within this short section. We learn that Bearden grew up in a middle- to upper-class black family that moved north from North Carolina along with other black families during the Great Migration. The moving to and fro, revisiting North Carolina to spend time with extended family, traveling from Pittsburgh to Harlem, is reflected in Bearden's imagery and subjects, which expressed movement and especially his fascination with trains. Bearden lived in Harlem during the height of the Renaissance. Family friends included Duke Ellington and Eleanor Roosevelt. His peers included Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas, Claude McKay and Federico García Lorca.
In Part II, we get a taste of Bearden's own writing. This section gives insight into what Bearden thought about art and artists in general, as well as his position and growth as an artist through his work. The writings chosen show that Bearden was very aware of the issue of race in the United States during his life and how his work would be received and what it meant to be black. Part II again condenses major themes while pushing the point that Bearden was conscious how reality for blacks was shaped by enslavement, illiteracy, poverty, and family separation. Bearden witnesses attitudes towards blacks prevalent in white artistic endeavors from minstrel shows (p. 92) to how black people appeared in art history and in the work of Bearden's peers.
Part II also provides some insight into Bearden's techniques, such as reliance on the rectangle and the concern over leaving a space in the corner for the eye to rest. Bearden carefully considered and composed his work. He was not randomly piecing bits of paper together or slinging paint on a canvas but deeply concerned with form and composition. Again this section reprises much of what is found in work about Bearden, but O'Meally tends to focus this collection around themes of race and modern art, and the pieces help lay out Bearden's thoughts on what his art should represent. For those interested in race, black African art, and modern art, this section is very useful.
Part III gathers essays from literary, musical, cultural, and history scholars to situate Bearden within these fields. This is where O'Meally provides fresh insight into the artist. Toni Morrison's piece places Bearden's struggle in the context of black writers who must contend with issues of black identity in the reception of their work. The Western cultural expectations of what black artists and writers are capable of and what they can talk about attempts to limit them within the framework of “authenticity,” in that black artists are expected to explain blackness in their works. Morrison points to the struggle of black artists to escape their marginalization and to be evaluated by their capacity to reflect human experiences that know no color, such as pain, loss, death, and joy. Morrison also places Bearden firmly within interdisciplinary scholarship because he worked in and drew from so many disciplines.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander discusses the deep literary, musical, and artistic knowledge Bearden drew upon in his creations. Alexander highlights that the fragmentation of the diaspora provides a source of black artists' creative power. Further, we can infer that this cross-cultural insight leads to interdisciplinary practices in their work. Bearden, for example, looked at European artistic masters, studied jazz and wrote music, read authors like W.E.B. DuBois and Walt Whitman, and incorporated different art disciplines—design, photography, collage, and painting—into his visual repertoire.
Many critics have discussed jazz and how rhythm was important to how Bearden worked. Kobena Mercer elevates Bearden's role in black modernist art, which is a product of the history of black artists who must grapple with politics, white supremacy, and survival in addition to how to work with plastic art materials. Albert Murray points out that Bearden's history is enmeshed in a reflection of the experience of the great black musicians he listened to and those he knew. Duke Ellington's use of timbres, dissonance, onomatopoeia; Chick Webb's accentuations; Count Basie's abbreviations of ragtime; and the “distortions and disjunctures of Thelonious Monk” (p. 293) all showed up in Bearden's creations, and his life was similar to those artists who were influenced by black churches and the migration north. This makes race and the black experience inseparable from Bearden's life and, therefore, ever-present in his work.
O'Meally choice of essays and interviews emphasizes that Bearden, along with the authors writing about his work, was caught up in the political reality of being black in a white-dominated society. Black artists were expected to show the black experience, yet also seen as less worthy for not mastering European styles and techniques. “The Negro American who aspired to the title ‘artist’ was too often restricted by sociological notions of racial separatism …” (p. 200) O'Meally does a good job pointing to the politics of race that play out in Bearden's work. While he did not want to be seen as a black political artist, his work has political ramifications. “Asked in an interview about his political affiliations the year before [the early 1930s], he had proclaimed, ‘I have none’” (p. 257) He wanted to help black artists and ease racial prejudice but not overtly. He was not trying to preach or lead revolutionary actions.
Ellison makes clear the degree to which Bearden's photographic collages of the mid-1960s arise out of the historical context of the period, and possess a relevance that might have easily been termed political, if that word were allowed to have some resonance beyond the narrow straits of cliché and protest“ (p. 257)
There are a few things I wish were in the reader. The tension between Bearden's identity as black, his understanding of Black Africa, and his desire to be seen as more than a black artist lacks exploration. Bearden lamented the lack of training for black artists, which he linked to the lack of decent formal educational opportunities. He worried about the fate of black artists and the possibilities that art allowed for black people to make a cultural contribution that could only occur if they gained respect for themselves from white society. While Bearden self-identified as black and had black ancestors, he was described multiple times as Russian and was offered a position on a white baseball team because he could “pass.” That he could pass for white surely had an effect on his black experience. Bearden's bifurcated biracial identity was not uncommon during his time among middle- and upper-class blacks who were college educated and recognized due to their closer proximity to whiteness. W.E.B DuBois was light-skinned, as was blue-eyed Booker T. Washington. While Bearden only described himself as black, he had access to the privileges of being lighter-skinned.
Also lacking in the reader is a deeper discussion of Bearden's problematic ideas concerning black identity and art. Bearden talked about “negros” accepting white civilization (p. 88), implying that black Africans needed civilization. Bearden's understanding of black African art was filtered through white, Western lenses. He remarked that black Africans were unable to create photographic realism, although the Benin bronze sculptures he pastes in his collages are photorealistic. He also believed the art remained unchanged from hundreds of years ago, ignoring the influence of 500 years of European contact and Arab Islamic contact before that. It is not that black Africa had no civilization before the 1400s. Additionally, the objects colonials brought home in the 1700s and 1800s were often created with European taste for the exotic in mind.
The reader does not show enough of how Bearden's art was influenced by or linked to black African art practices, despite his early views of black African art and/or black artists in general. Repetition, for instance, is something found in much of black African design work. Though Bearden was economically secure, he mimicked the necessary use of found objects in his work (scraps of paper found around the home), reminding me of El Anatsui's tapestries constructed of bottle caps and other discarded materials.
The links between Bearden's art and black African aesthetics could have been explored through Bearden's ideas about jazz and creating visual movement in his 2D art. One should remember that the highly prized mask headdresses that Westerners collected were never meant to be static objects in museums. Further, there are links between the rectangles and spiral patterns that emerge across collages, something O'Meally and others saw as related to his studies of Chinese art. However, this also harkens back to black African aesthetics. Looking at Evening 9:10 461 Lenox Avenue (1964) and Jazz II (1980) reminds me of the use of fractals and the golden ratio in black African architecture and art. Ron Eglash explains that black African design incorporated complex fractal patterns that Western art and architecture lacked (Eglash 1999).
Bearden might not have seen these connections, which points to a continual problem with how people understand black African art and design. The reader could have used an essay that dived into notions of “primitiveness” and art. The alleged “primitiveness” of black African art in the context of art movements like cubism and surrealism Western ideas of “primitivism” is an essential ingredient which led artists to mimic and photograph Africana objects the way they did, including Bearden. The problem is that the acceptance of this historical discourse as used today tends to deny the debts that modernity owes to African modernity by holding to the Orientalist assumption that only Europe is civilized while others remain primitive. When trying to understand a black Western artist and his interaction with black African art, one needs to understand the misrepresentation of black African art in the West since colonials brought pieces back to the metropole. One also needs to know how race and authenticity manifest in the art world.