Born a century ago in North Carolina's Meklenburg County, the American painter and collagist Romare Bearden (1911–1988) moved with his family to New York when he was 3 years old. While many of his most famous images—including the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "The Block" (1971), depicting a teeming section of Lennox Avenue in Harlem—focus on scenes of African-American urban life, Bearden never strayed far in his work from the countryside and people he glimpsed as a child in rural North Carolina.
For Bearden's centennial, the Mint Museum here has mounted a retrospective that brings into sharp focus the artist's Southern roots—the fields, farmhouses, rituals and trains, which Bearden worked into brightly colored Cubist landscapes and intimate domestic interiors. Subsequent stints in New York, Pittsburgh and St. Martin in the Caribbean all found their way into Bearden's work. But beginning with his early figurative gouaches of the 1940s, Bearden made it clear in image after image that, as he put it, he "never left Charlotte, except physically."
Bearden's Southern recollections mingle memories from childhood—such as they were at the age of 3—with his experiences of Charlotte as an adult. He returned there in 1925, the year that both his grandmother and great-grandmother died, then not again until 1940, with more frequent visits thereafter. Very little remains of Bearden's boyhood neighborhood, save an iron railroad trestle that still looms over that part of town. Trains were ubiquitous presences in Mecklenburg County, and they figure regularly in Bearden's collages, whether glimpsed through a window or puffing across an open field. Other abiding presences include farmers, musicians and the local mystics known as "conjur women." Beloved neighborhood characters, such as Maudell Sleet and Madeleine Jones, are actually composite figures from Bearden's oldest memories of Charlotte.
A vibrant small collage of Sleet, "Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Mecklenburg County, Maudell Sleet's Magic Garden" (1978), shows a kneeling woman in a blue dress and straw sunhat tending to her overgrown, brilliantly hued flowerbed. Bearden painted Sleet differently every time: "I've done her about two or three times," he once said, "and each time the facial characteristics are different: I wouldn't recognize her as the same woman one for the other, but it's alright for my memory, because I'm recalling this thing."
Bearden's impressionistic hold on the South, based on his memories, led him to imagine his way into the homes and lives of his neighbors: a man playing the guitar on his front steps, a woman bathing, a family sitting down for a meal or getting ready for church. Bearden's angular compositions take their cues from the Old Masters—from Pieter de Hooch and Duccio di Buoninsegna—while the modernist idiom of his "montage paintings" extends from the European modernism of the Cubists and Henri Matisse. Bearden said that it was not his "aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda. [It is to depict] the life of my people as I know it, passionately and dispassionately as Breughel."
It was Bearden's great gift as an artist to be able to synthesize ancient cultures and the art of the past with modern life and painting: "If you equate a lot of things that have happened in Negro life you see there's a continuity with many of the great classical things that have happened before." Bearden drew connections between African tribal ritual, Ancient Greek epic, and Eastern landscape painting and philosophy. By weaving these cultural threads into a Cubist tapestry—in which a figure might be part Benin mask, part Sears catalog clipping—Bearden made modernist collage his own and distinctly American.
In 1977, Calvin Tomkins published a long profile of Bearden in The New Yorker, a survey of his life and career up to that point—his training in mathematics, his success as a songwriter and athlete, his Army service and travel to Paris on the G.I. Bill, his studies with George Grosz at the Art Students League in New York. The Tomkins biographical sketch sparked Bearden's interest in his own life story. Soon after, he showed a series of pictures called "Profile," covering the early decades of his life and specifically his memories of Mecklenburg County.
Bearden's passionate engagement with his past continued through to the end of his career. As the curator Carla M. Hanzel notes, two of Bearden's most evocative and lyrical landscapes, "Mecklenburg Autumn: October—Toward Paw's Creek" (1983) and "Mecklenburg Autumn: September—Sky and Meadow" (1983), date from the last decade of his life. They are eloquent proofs of Bearden's claim that "my roots are in North Carolina."
A catalog of the exhibition, edited by Ms. Hanzel, includes a preface by the Bearden specialist Ruth Fine, of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and an afterword by Bearden's biographer Myron Schwartzman. Mary Lee Corlett's essay on the jazzlike repetitions and variations in Bearden's work is particularly strong. As may be seen at the Mint, Bearden used Photostats of earlier works to revisit certain compositions and remake them in a new format or with different colors and details, as in "Mysteries" (1964) and "The Train" (1974).
Beyond the Mint's exhibition, a number of other worthwhile anniversary shows may be seen in Charlotte, including three related exhibitions at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts just across the street. An important touring show of Bearden's prints organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation opens on Oct. 15 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., while, in New York, Bearden's work can now be seen at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture through Jan. 7, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where "The Block" is back on view) and, beginning in November, at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a series of four stamps of Bearden images, two of which—"Falling Star" (1979) and "Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman" (1964)—are included at the Mint. It's one more way in which Bearden is now widely recognized as a true American master.