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Romare Bearden: Narrations

May 23 - July 20, 2003

 

Romare Bearden: Narrations brings together previously unviewed work by pre-eminent African-American artist Romare Bearden. Comprising 63 gouache and watercolor collages that represent three complete series, the exhibition explores Bearden's art in light of the complexity of the African-American experience in all of its richness and in its adaptations to late 20th-century American life. It will be on view at the Delaware Art Museum, Bank One Center on the Riverfront, from May 23 through July 20.

The first series, Bayou Fever, 1979, depicts the rituals and rural traditions of commonplace, southern African-American life as recalled by Bearden through reminiscences of childhood. Although Bearden envisioned Bayou Fever to form the basis of a ballet choreographed by Alvin Ailey, complete with costumed characters and stage sets, it was never realized in final dance form. The second series, New York Scenes, 1979, includes depictions of the neighborhoods of New York, created as backdrops for credit lines for the 1980 film Gloria by John Cassavetes. The third series, Jazz, 1981, is Bearden's homage to the world of that modern musical idiom. Planned as a book, the powerful compositions of the works in this series incorporate a myriad of subjects that include musicians, singers, comedians and popular performers of Harlem's Apollo Theater and Cotton Club. Like the musicians and performers he portrays, this series expresses the visual rhythms and musical moods of the world of Jazz, celebrating with pride the African-American contribution to this modern art form. (right: Romare Bearden (1911­1988), Jazz with Armstrong, from the Jazz series, collage on paper, 15 15/16 x 22 1/4 inches)

Romare Bearden (1912-1988) was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, of Cherokee, Italian and African ancestry. His father, Howard, moved the family north, first to Canada and Pennsylvania, then finally to New York's Harlem. Romare's dynamic and magnetic mother, Bessye, became the New York Bureau Chief for The Chicago Defender, the most influential African-American weekly newspaper of the time. His father worked for the New York Department of Health, playing piano duets in his spare time with Jazz greats Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. As a young man growing up in Harlem, Romare Bearden got to meet and hear most of the great performers of the day, including Fats Waller, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Perhaps due to his strong personal attachment and love of Jazz, the works devoted to this subject represent some of Bearden's most effective and evocative work.

Bearden began to paint seriously around 1935, encouraged by other African-American artists he met in Harlem. Harlem in the late 1920s and 1930s was a cohesive and dynamic community; a great flowering of African-American visual arts, music and literature emerged during this period, often called the Harlem Renaissance. Bearden's affiliation with such people as Langston Hughes, Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, Carl Van Vechten, John Hammonds and others provided the encouragement for Bearden to focus his attention on work that explored and celebrated African-American history, oral traditions and personal experience. The political work of the German expatriate artist George Grosz, with whom Bearden studied at the Art Students league, also provided Bearden with the inspiration to create work that operated as social commentary. It was, however, the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s that galvanized Bearden into

focusing his artistic talents on contemporary Black experience, primarily Harlem street life, overlaid with personal recollection. Utilizing collage as his favorite mode of expression, Bearden incorporated the fragmented forms and shifted scales of Cubism and African Art in a shallow pictorial space to create a body of work vibrant with energy and power. Simple yet profound, Bearden's work captures the pulsating rhythms, vivid colors and moving imagery that characterizes the poetic beauty and richness of Black life in America.

The exhibition, organized by Lucinda H. Gedeon, Director, and Dede Young, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, is accompanied by a full-color exhibition catalog with an essay by Sharon F. Patton. In Delaware, Romare Bearden: Narrations is made possible, in part, by AstraZeneca, DuPont, Frank Russell Trust, 1450 WILM-Newsradio, Yellow Book USA, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Delaware Division of the Arts.

Note: During the Delaware Art Museum's Expansion at 2301 Kentmere Parkway, the collection and museum activities will be housed at the First USA Riverfront Arts Center, 800 South Madison Street, Suite B, Wilmington, DE 19801.

 

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