Charlotte’s Mint Museum Launches Major Romare Bearden Retrospective on Centennial of His Birth

National Tour of Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections

CHARLOTTE, NC (July 31, 2011) – This fall The Mint Museum will present Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections,  a major retrospective of one of America’s most preeminent African  American artists and foremost collagists. Opening on the centennial of  the artist’s birth in Charlotte, the city in which he was born, the  exhibition is the first of its kind to examine in depth how the South  served as a source of inspiration throughout Bearden’s career.  Encompassing approximately 100 works of art drawn from The Mint Museum’s  extensive holdings as well as from national public and private  collections, the exhibition will be on view at the Mint Museum Uptown at  Levine Center for the Arts from 2 September 2011 through 8 January 2012  and then travels to the Tampa Museum of Art (28 January through 6 May  2012) and Newark Museum (23 May through 19 August 2012).

Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections is an incredibly compelling retrospective assembled by The Mint Museum  that showcases the immense contribution of America’s most renowned  African American artists and the significance of his Southern heritage  as a source of inspiration, “said Dr. Kathleen V. Jameson, President  & CEO of The Mint Museum. “It is an important and timely  examination of Bearden’s work.”

The exhibition highlights themes  unexplored in prior exhibitions or writings, and surveys fifty years of  the artist’s work including his early abstract paintings and the  influential collages that dominated his later body of work. Among the  large thematic groupings will be selections from the Prevalence of Ritual series,  which includes Bearden’s first revolutionary collages that demonstrate  his ability to transform life into art, revealing abiding rituals and  ceremonies of affirmation. Elements seen in this series are repeated  throughout Bearden’s oeuvre, serving as icons for his  statements about life in America. One such icon is the locomotive, which  not only symbolizes a means of moving from one place/mode of life to  another but also references the Underground Railroad, as well as the  migration of Southern blacks to northern cities in the early twentieth  century.

“Given the long association between Bearden and the  city of Charlotte, the Mint has a special interest in organizing such an  important retrospective,” said Carla Hanzal, exhibition organizer and  Mint Museum curator of contemporary art. “Romare Bearden broke new  ground with his innovative collages and left a powerful legacy to  generations of American artists. As Charlotte’s oldest visual arts  institution, we are proud to have a substantial history of collecting  and presenting works of art by Romare Bearden.”

The  exhibition’s loose chronological structure traces such critical themes  in Bearden’s work as music, religion, social change, and family,  particularly informed by an African American experience. The earliest  group of works, from the 1940s, focuses on his memories of the rural  South, painted in tempera on brown paper and characterized by strong  colors, flattened perspective, and stylized, highly formal compositions.  Such works as The Visitation (1941) and Folk Musicians (1942) depict scenes of agrarian life yet also portray universal emotional bonds.

As Bearden developed his iconic collage technique in the mid-1960s, he  made use of a wide range of art practices, both Western and non-Western.  His use of collage, with its distortions, reversals, and surrealistic  blending of styles, enabled Bearden to convey the dreamlike quality of  memory, and was, therefore, a perfect vehicle for recording his memories  of the South. After helping to found an artist’s group in support of  civil rights in 1963, Bearden’s work became more overtly socially  conscious. One of his most famous series, Prevalence of Ritual,  concentrated primarily on his knowledge and experience of African  American life, and the myth, rituals, and socially maintained rites  within communities Collages like Prevalence of Ritual: Tidings (1964) examined the evolving nature of African Americans’ rights. Though  rooted in traditional renderings of the Biblical Annunciation with an  angel greeting a young woman and offering a flower, Bearden’s addition  of symbols, including the train in the background and birds flying  through the sky, perhaps implied a journey towards greater freedom and  equality made possible by the civil rights movement. In Carolina Reunion (1975), the subject matter is emblematic of the longing for a better  life and the comforting familiarity of home embodied in the northern  migration of African Americans from the South during the early part of  the twentieth century.

Bearden returned to Mecklenburg County  in the seventies as his career was beginning to gain momentum. This  Southern homecoming proved bittersweet. Charlotte was undergoing urban  renewal, and already traces of Bearden’s past had been erased. This  nostalgic experience imbued Bearden with a greater sense of urgency to  both celebrate and to eulogize a lost way of life, a theme that would  inform his artwork for the remainder of his career. Drawn to “journeying  things”—trains and birds—his inclusion of these recurring motifs  implied a movement from one way of life to another. Bearden increasingly  used richer colors and more decorative patterns to mediate ideas about  African American community.

A 144-page, fully illustrated  catalogue co-published and distributed by D Giles Limited, London, will  accompany the exhibition. Contributors to the book include:  Mary Lee  Corlett, Jae Emerling, Glenda Gilmore, Leslie King-Hammond, Carla  Hanzal, Myron Schwartzman, and Ruth Fine. Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections has been made possible with generous support from Duke Energy and Wells Fargo. This exhibition has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius. In addition, a series of special events and programming are  scheduled to support the exhibit and to highlight Bearden’s centennial  birthday.

Born in  Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Bearden lived in Charlotte until the  age of four. Although his family settled in New York, the artist’s  brief childhood in the South and return visits to Charlotte made a  noteworthy impact on his art. During these visits, Bearden absorbed  stories and observations about the rituals of daily Southern life—the  relentless toil of crop cultivation, women tending gardens and mixing  herbal remedies, fish fries, and other community gatherings, and  religious activities. These experiences, as well as stories passed from  generation to generation left a lasting impression on him.

His life and art are marked by exceptional talent, encompassing a broad  range of intellectual and scholarly interests, including music,  performing arts, history, literature, and world art. Bearden was also a  celebrated humanist, as demonstrated by his longtime support of young,  emerging artists. Bearden began college at Lincoln University,  transferred to Boston University, and completed his studies at New York  University (NYU), graduating with a degree in education. While at NYU,  Bearden took extensive courses in art and was a lead cartoonist and  subsequent art editor for the monthly journal The Medley. He had also been art director of Beanpot,  the student humor magazine of Boston University. Bearden published many  journal covers during his university years and the first of numerous  texts he would write on social and artistic issues. He also attended the  Art Students League in New York and the Sorbonne in Paris. From 1935 –  1937, Bearden was a weekly editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Afro-American.

After joining the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935, Bearden embarked on his  lifelong study of art, gathering inspiration from Western masters  ranging from Duccio, Giotto, and de Hooch to Cezanne, Picasso, and  Matisse, as well as from African art (particularly sculpture, masks, and  textiles), Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints, and Chinese landscape  paintings.  From the mid-1930s through the 1960s, Bearden was a social  worker with the New York City Department of Social Services, working on  his art at night and on weekends. His success as an artist was  recognized with his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940 and his  first solo show in Washington, D.C., in 1944. Bearden was a prolific  artist whose works were exhibited during his lifetime throughout the  United States and Europe. His collages, watercolors, oils,  photomontages, and prints are imbued with visual metaphors from his past  in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Harlem, and from  a variety of historical, literary, and musical sources. Bearden died in  1988.