The artistic career of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) reflects political, social, and aesthetic transformations.
Spelman College president Campbell (Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, 1994, etc.) met Bearden in 1973 when she was a graduate student in fine arts at Syracuse University, spurring her interest in his work and leading to her curating her first museum show, Mysteries: Women in the Art of Romare Bearden. Drawing on her interviews with the artist and his first biographer, along with considerable archival and published material, Campbell offers a discerning portrait of Bearden’s long and successful career. Bearden grew up partly in Harlem, with his parents, and partly in Charlotte and Pittsburgh, where he lived with relatives. His mother, an activist, journalist, and New York City school board member, welcomed assorted artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals into her Harlem home, giving her son access to the creative spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. As a college student, he had two passions: baseball and cartoons, which appeared in undergraduate publications and political journals such as Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Bearden’s more serious work as an artist began in the 1930s, a period that Campbell sees as “a cauldron of competing approaches to art” and controversy over how to represent African-American experience. Besides painting, Bearden worked as a case worker, which fueled an awareness of social injustice that emerged in his muckraking cartoons. Like the murals of Diego Rivera, whom he admired, his canvases showed “overtones of labor strife and the burden of poverty, and the strains they put on life.” The advent of modernism challenged Bearden to reassess his commitment to a naturalistic, social realist style; after a formative five-month stay in Paris in 1950, he returned feeling “unmoored from the markers of race and community.” The rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, however, caused another transformation, spurring him to reconcile “the multiple inheritances that made up his identity.” A 1971 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art made Bearden a celebrity.
A perceptive, richly detailed biography.