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February 2012 Issue

Universal Appeal

The Taft Museum of Art showcases the collage and printmaking
artistry of Romare Bearden.

"Out Chorus," 1979-80, Etching and Aquatint, Edition 200

Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art

"The Train," 1975, Etching and Aquatint, Edition 125

Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art

"The Family," 1975, Etching in Sepia Ink

Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art

"Homage to Mary Lou," 1984, Lithograph, Edition 100

Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art

Romare Bearden lived a life of textures, layers and diversity. A native of the American South who spent most of his life in Harlem, Bearden was many things in his lifetime: athlete, soldier, writer, composer, social worker, student of philosophy. In the end, though, he’s best known for artwork that encompasses a variety of media and techniques, including fascinating explorations of the printmaking process. When Bearden died in 1988, he left a legacy that carefully chronicles a range of techniques that blur the distinctions between the mechanics of printmaking and the intuitive process of making art.

“He’s really considered one of the masters of 20th-century art in America,” says Tamera Muente, assistant curator at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art.

“While Bearden’s work deals with very personal experiences, at the same time it’s more universal. It’s about the African-American experience, but also about the human experience.

“It has,” she adds, “a lot of global influences. It’s very wide-reaching.”

Through April 29, the Taft Museum is hosting “Impressions and Improvisations: The Prints of Romare Bearden,” a nationally touring exhibition that presents a selected body of prints showcasing the ways the artist experimented and collaborated on his journey toward mastery of the print medium. It includes 75 lithographs, etchings, collographs, collograph plates, screen prints, monoprints and engravings created over a span of three decades.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911, Bearden moved to New York City with his family when he was a toddler. Their home became a meeting place for many prominent figures in the Harlem Renaissance, including legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington. Bearden studied science and education at New York University, and worked full-time as a social worker from the 1930s to the 1960s.

But by the mid-’30s, he was also studying art under German artist George Grosz at the Art Students League. Early on, Bearden focused on painting. He drew inspiration from Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. As the 1960s dawned, his artistic ambitions had outgrown the conventions of paint on canvas: Bearden began experimenting with various forms of collage.

Although he was deeply inspired by the Civil Rights movement — and the African-American experience in general — Bearden’s vision extended to more universal parameters.

“He also expressed the opinion that African-American artists should draw on all types of culture and different kinds of mediums, and bring their personal experience to their work,” says Muente. “[But Bearden also believed they should] be open to the whole broad range of art, literature, music and other influences. He said, ‘The Negro artist must think of himself not primarily as a Negro artist but as an artist.’

“In that sense,” she adds, “he really helped broaden the possibilities for African-American artists.”

Indeed, Bearden’s imagery covers a wide range of themes, including trains, family life, religious and secular rituals, urban scenes, jazz and mythology. And the layers of different techniques used in a single work — or in many cases, series of works — blot the distinction between what is collage and what is print. While the pieces in the Taft exhibition are primarily prints, many of them began as collages before undergoing a printmaking process involving several complex levels of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Bearden’s “12-Trains” series is an excellent example of this technique, and a focal point of the exhibition.
“He would make a collage, photograph it and make a transparency,” Muente explains. “Then, he would cut it, reassemble it as another collage and re-photograph the resulting image through a screen to get different textures. Bearden would then cut out the photograph and reassemble it again as a collage, photograph it and put that image on a plate for printing. Finally, the actual plate for the final print would be cut into pieces to give it the look of a collage.”

Another series, “The Prevalence of Ritual,” is crafted in a somewhat less elaborate manner, but is just as visually compelling. It concentrates on southern African-American life, and includes various Biblical and religious images. “This series was completed in the 1970s,” says Muente, “so it provides a glimpse of the later period of his career.”

The New York-based Bearden Foundation, in conjunction with Landau Traveling Exhibitions, recently celebrated the centennial of Bearden’s birth. Americans previously unfamiliar with his work received a glimpse of it at the mailbox and in the post office last year: The U.S. Postal Service recognized the anniversary by issuing a series of commemorative stamps featuring Bearden collages, one of which is featured in the Taft exhibition.

Although the curator had been familiar with Bearden’s work prior to the opening of “Impressions and Improvisations,” Muente admits she hadn’t been aware of its full breadth and depth until plans were coming together to bring the exhibition to the Taft Museum. She notes that while Bearden was deeply connected to Harlem’s music and art scene throughout much of his life, his artistic vision extended well beyond his immediate environment.

“Bearden was so well read and so educated that he could move in the same circles as writers and scholars and philosophers anywhere in the world,” Muente says. “He was inspired by so many different kinds of art — African art, Chinese paintings, Renaissance paintings, 17th-century Dutch paintings. He was inspired by music and literature and so many other things around him.

“Bearden was,” she adds, “a really  amazing artist.” 

When You Go

Taft Museum of Art
316 Pike St., Cincinnati, 45202
513/241-0343, taftmuseum.org
Hours: Tues.–Fri. 11 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sat.–Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
Admission: adults $10, seniors 60 and over $8, students and teachers $8; youth 12–17 $4; free admission for all on Sun. 
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