This fall, The Mint Museum presents a major retrospective of the work of Romare Bearden (1911-1988), widely regarded as one of America’s most pre-eminent African American artists and foremost collagists, as well as a noted writer and musician. The exhibition Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections surveys 50 years of the artist’s work, from his early abstract paintings to the influential collages that dominated his later body of work. Opening on the centennial of Bearden’s birth, the exhibition will be on view at the Mint Museum Uptown (at Levine Center for the Arts, 500 South Tryon Street) from 2 September 2011 – 8 January 2012.
“Romare Bearden broke new ground with his innovative collages and left a powerful legacy to generations of American artists,” said Curator of Contemporary Art and exhibition curator Carla Hanzal. “Given the long association between Bearden and the city of Charlotte, the Mint has a special interest in bringing this important career overview to the public.”
Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections will include approximately 100 works of art drawn from The Mint Museum’s extensive holdings, as well as national public and private collections. This exhibition examines how the South served as a source of inspiration throughout his career, a theme which has not been explored previously. Among the large thematic groupings will be selections from the Prevalence of Ritual series, which includes many works referring to Bearden’s childhood home in North Carolina.
Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Bearden lived there until the age of four. Although his family settled in New York, the artist’s brief childhood in the South and return visits to Charlotte made a noteworthy impact on his art. During these visits, Bearden absorbed stories and observations about the rituals of daily Southern life—the relentless toil of crop cultivation, women tending gardens and mixing herbal remedies, fish fries and other community gatherings, and religious activities. These experiences, which stood in stark contrast to the urban rhythm of his parents’ New York City household, left a lasting impression on him.
The exhibition’s loosely chronological structure traces critical themes in Bearden’s work such as music, religion, social change, and family, particularly informed by an African-American experience. The earliest group of works, from the 1940s, focuses on his memories of the rural South, painted in tempera on brown paper and characterized by strong colors, flattened perspective, and stylized, highly formal compositions. Works such as The Visitation (1941) and Folk Musicians (1942) depict scenes of agrarian life yet also portray universal emotional bonds.
As Bearden developed his iconic collage technique in the mid-1960s, he made use of a wide ranges of art practices, both Western and non-Western. His use of collage, with its distortions, reversals, and Surrealistic blending of styles, enabled Bearden to convey the dream-like quality of memory, and was, therefore, a perfect vehicle for recording of his memories of the South. After helping to found an artist’s group in support of civil rights in 1963, Bearden’s work became more overtly socially conscious. One of his most famous series, Prevalence of Ritual, concentrated mostly on southern African American life. Works like Baptism (1964) examined the changing nature of African Americans’ rights. Illustrating the movement of water being poured onto the subject being baptized, Bearden conveyed the temporal flux of society during the civil rights movement. In Carolina Reunion (1975), the subject matter is emblematic of the longing for a better life and the comforting familiarity of home embodied in the northern migration of African Americans from the South during the early part of the 20th century.
Bearden returned to Mecklenburg County in the 1970s just as his career was beginning to gain momentum. This Southern homecoming proved bittersweet. Charlotte was undergoing urban renewal, and already traces of Bearden’s past had been erased. This nostalgic experience imbued Bearden with a greater sense of urgency to both celebrate and eulogize a lost way of life, a theme that would inform his artwork for the remainder of his days.
During the 1970s, Bearden developed a complex iconography that spoke to these new developments. Drawn to “journeying things”—trains and birds—his inclusion of these recurring motifs implied a movement from one way of life to another. He increasingly used richer colors and more decorative patterns to mediate ideas about African American community and culture, as in Of the Blues: Carolina Shout (1974), Back Porch Serenade (1977), and Sunset Limited (Mecklenburg County) (1978).