Art

Romare Bearden’s Collages of Life in the Rural South and Industrial North

For the first time in decades, more than 30 collages from Bearden’s Profile series is being shown together.

Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Mecklenberg County, Miss Bertha & Mr. Seth, 1978, collage on board. Collection of Susan Merker. © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

ATLANTA — Sometimes our memories of the past are not linear recollections, but collaged fragments that convey the emotions behind moments. Romare Bearden, in his Profile series, captures memory as this overlapping network of images: a funeral, a swinging jazz show, a neighbor gardening, a train ride at sunset. He uses fragments from magazines, scraps in his studio, advertisements, textbooks, and more, to represent a time, period, and place. In this series, Bearden overlays these images, text, textures, and other elements to create memory-as-pastiche, and the resulting works document the fragmented memory he shares with those who lived in these scenes.

The High Museum of Art’s current show, Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series, reunites more than 30 collages from Romare Bearden’s Profile series (done in 1979 and 1981). It displays the pieces in sequence, with handwritten notes on the gallery wall (in the style of Bearden’s original hand-done texts), representative of their original display at Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York. Where possible, the original frames are still displayed to show viewers the works as Bearden originally saw them.

Installation view of Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series at the High Museum (photo by Mike Jensen, courtesy of the High Museum)

Bearden’s work represents two distinct views of African American experiences in the early 20th century: depictions of the rural South and the urban North, including the Harlem Renaissance. Bearden’s family moved to Harlem from North Carolina when he was a toddler, and he finished high school in Pittsburgh, but Bearden frequently visited his family in the South throughout his adolescence. As an adult, he returned to  New York City. He is at his peak creatively in the Profile series; he coalesces these parts of his past — digging deep into his memory and using a wide array of materials and techniques to capture these moments and collapse these contrasting experiences into singular images.

Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Pittsburgh Memories, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, 1978, collage on board. Cincinnati Art Museum. © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

When the exhibition was originally mounted, the pieces were bought by a wide range of collectors. The collages were scattered throughout the country, some in private collections and some in institutions, so tracking down some of the pieces took personal memories and connections on behalf of the curators. Only one unidentified collector declined to lend their piece.

Conserving the Profile artworks was a complicated labor of love for the curators; one piece may have dozens of media on it, and it’s not always clear what material Bearden used (such as aluminum foil from the kitchen, or less likely, silver leafing). Because many of the collages came from home collections, they hadn’t been kept in a museum-quality display, making visible the ephemerality of endurance of certain materials. The fragments of magazine and print materials fade — like aging snapshots do. However, sections where Bearden used high-quality paint and inks have not changed a bit.

Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Artist with Painting & Model, 1981, collage on fiberboard. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Alfred Austell Thornton in memory of Leila Austell Thornton and Albert Edward Thornton, Sr., and Sarah Miller Venable and William Hoyt Venable, Margaret and Terry Stent Endowment for the Acquisition of American Art, David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Fund, Anonymous Donors, Sarah and Jim Kennedy, The Spray Foundation, Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell, Charlotte Garson, The Morgens West Foundation, Lauren Amos, Margaret and Scotty Greene, Harriet and Edus Warren, The European Fine Art Foundation, Billye and Hank Aaron, Veronica and Franklin Biggins, Helen and Howard Elkins, Drs. Sivan and Jeff Hines, Brenda and Larry Thompson, and a gift to honor Howard Elkins from the Docents of the High Museum of Art, 2014.66. © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In the works, it seems Bearden has become very sure of his creative vision because he layers so many of his favorite techniques into a single piece. He brings consistent themes and materials to his collage — West African masks (which he cut out from a textbook), bold patterns, lush foliage. He draws, paints, and prints on the pieces. There’s humor and cleverness used in his techniques. In “The Thirties: Artist with Painting and Model,” he cuts the outline of a hand from piece of fabric and uses the fabric scrap to depict a rag hung over a chair in the same picture frame. (The piece was recently acquired by the High, and was the nexus that inspired this redisplay of the full series.)

Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene, 1978, collage on board. Private collection. © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

All the while, Bearden plumbs his mind for images of his life in Charlotte, North Carolina and his adulthood spent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York City. The transition from the lush Southern collages to the slick and jazzy Northern pieces is seamless, and Bearden always finds the right materials to give these scenes an undeniable aura. He becomes an artistic documentarian of the Great Migration, collecting scraps and images from the rural South and industrial North, to show both tradition and disparity. The works have a documentary quality to them — Bearden lets us peek into farmer shacks, hotels, brothels, and other environments in an image that is just as truthful as a photo would be. What Bearden does differently is that he incorporates materials and mark-making to evoke another layer to these scenes — they become images not just of these environments, but also evocative of the original scenes.

Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Mecklenberg County, School Bell Time, 1978, collage on board. Kingsborough Community College, C.U.N.Y., NYC. © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This small but impactful show was arranged by two dedicated curators: Stephanie Heydt (the High’s Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art) and Bearden scholar Robert G. O’Meally (Zora Neale Hurston professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University). Together they brought together many thoughtful pieces for the exhibition, including video footage of the original exhibition at Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, which revealed acute elements like Bearden’s handwritten wall notes. Their dedication to authenticity gives the show an even more historic weight.

This thorough view of Romare Bearden’s Profile shows the artist at his creative peak. He has mastered his unique way of layering many elements to create stories in his work that reveal more truths the deeper and longer you look at them. He is looking back on his life, his experiences, and the many styles and techniques he used as a young artist. The fragments of his collages represent the expansive and historical traits and textures of his experiences as an African American. Bearden seems to create a timeless Black experience through his work, where many people over many generations are inextricably connected. He collapses so much of his life details into these singular images, that even the curators are constantly discovering new elements of the story. The works are clever, playful, and very personal. This is a small but mighty show worth seeings — especially because these rarely-exhibited collages will likely not be seen together again.

Installation view of Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series at the High Museum (photo by Mike Jensen, courtesy of the High Museum)

Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series is on view at the High Museum (1280 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, GA) through February  2, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Stephanie Heydt and Robert G. O’Meally.

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