Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque may have been the first to re-invent the art form of collage as we know it, but it was Romare Bearden (1911-88) who took it to its narrative, and some may say socio-political, heights.
Born in Charlotte, a century ago come Sept. 2, Bearden was, by all accounts, considered a great artist long before his death in 1988. But he has since become more than that thanks to his unmistakable collages. He has become an icon of black culture.
In fact, it was Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson who once described Bearden's art as having "a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience."
Upon discovering Bearden's work in the artist's 1971 exhibition catalog, "The Prevalence of Ritual" (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Wilson wrote: "I was looking at myself in ways I hadn't thought of before and have never ceased to think of since."
Two remarkable traveling exhibits focused on the artist are on display at the August Wilson Center, Downtown -- "From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden" and "Romare Bearden: The Last Years, Photography by Frank Stewart."
In "From Process to Print," more than 75 prints, many the result of several print processes, give one a sense of Bearden's artistic development over a 30-year span.
To give one an idea of the experimental nature of this artist, one must understand that there are lithographs, etchings, collographs, collograph plates, screen prints, drypoints, aquatints, photo projections, monoprints, engravings and even one collage on display, that, together, demonstrate, in part, how Bearden extended his artistic imagination beyond the collages and photomontages that he became known for.
"Like with his collages, Bearden leaned toward the experimental when it came to printmaking," says Cecile Shellman, artistic director of visual arts and exhibitions at the August Wilson Center.
For example, in "The Train" -- shown in nearly a dozen different forms -- Bearden combines the processes of etching and aquatint, creating different color versions along the way. "Some of these have different colors and different textures, because, as he pulled print after print, he would have new ideas and creative ways of adding to the image," Shellman says.
Like his collages, watercolors, oils and photomontages, many of Bearden's prints are imbued with visual metaphors from his past in North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Harlem and from a variety of historical, literary and musical sources.
"The Family" typifies the subject matter that made Bearden famous. Featuring a typical African-American family preparing for a meal, the print has a curious inclusion: A shrouded nude woman can be seen on the left-hand side, as if in a bedroom behind the kitchen.
This figure, which was based on historical precedents dating as far back as the classical Venus, became one of Bearden's favorite motifs. She appears in all of these guises throughout Bearden's oeuvre, most notably as the "Conjur Woman."
The conjure woman (which Bearden consistently spelled "conjur"), is a spirit figure in southern African-American culture, moved north as part of the Great Migration and reappears frequently in Bearden's work. "She was called upon to prepare love potions or cure illnesses, and help with personal problems," Shellman says.
In many ways, Bearden's "Conjur" woman embodies his own spirit. "He, literally, was making his own spin on things," Shellman says, when it came to making his prints. "He even took to cutting cardboard and gluing paper onto plates and making prints out of that."
Those types of prints are called "collagraphs," and among several examples of those on display, there are the actual plates that were made by gluing cardboard together. "On many of them, you can still see the ink," Shellman says.
The oldest prints in the exhibit, "Untitled (Louisiana Saturday Night)" and "The Dove," were produced in dry point, an intaglio process that involves the scratching of the surface of the plate with a sharp instrument such as an etching needle, diamond scribe or etching scraper rather than the chemical removal of material from the plate.
Just as fresh and new as the later works, they show the creative process and unique voice of the artist, which shines through.
As visitors will see, Bearden wasn't interested in simply making reproductions of his art. The lithographs, etchings and other prints created during the last 30 years of his life demonstrate that for the artist, printmaking was a medium that sparked deep inspiration.
The second exhibit, "Romare Bearden: The Last Years, Photography by Frank Stewart," chronicles those years through 46 black-and-white photographs by Frank Stewart.
On the day they met in 1975, during a still photograph shoot for the film "Two Centuries of Black American Art," a friendship between two artists -- some 40 years between them -- was born. Over the next 13 years, Stewart and Bearden worked side by side: the young photographer artfully capturing the older artist in some of the most candid, relaxed and affectionate moments in New York, across the country, and in St. Martin, where Bearden kept a second home.
In photographs like "Carlton Moss, Johnny Simmons, and Romare Bearden, Canal Street, NY" (1975), we see Bearden busily working in his studio with his assistants. In "Romare Bearden, NY" (1987), the artist is dapperly dressed, ready for an art opening. And in "Romare Bearden: Last Weeks, Canal Street Loft" (1987), a frail Bearden is seen lounging in his loft, while Stewart and his daughters, Sing and Bining Stewart, pet one of Bearden's cats.
Through the combination of these two exhibits, the two artists connect once more: one in life and the other in vivid memory. But, above all, one gets the sense of the deep appreciation Stewart had for Bearden, as a friend, an artist, an intellectual and a human being.
Shellman says these exhibits both tell of process. From intaglio to monoprint, multiple original to single image -- graphic marks represent relationships and an exploration of meaning. Each artist's handiwork, tools, and passion eke a rightful place in the canon of African-American luminaries in the visual arts.
It's fitting that this presentation is happening here, in what is the centennial year since Bearden's birth. Bearden lived in Pittsburgh with his family from the fourth grade to his graduation from Peabody High School in 1929.
"It's wonderful that in the centennial of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and the centennial of his birth, that we could have these shows here," Shellman says.