ROMARE BEARDEN (Lots 73-80)
Romare Bearden was one of the pre-eminent African-American artists of the 20th century.
Bearden was actively engaged in African-American issues in his art throughout his career; in the 1930s, he recalls in a memoir, he was drawing cartoons for the Afro-American, a Baltimore newspaper aimed at the black community, which had a national circulation*. He was all the same a voracious consumer of cultures of all kinds and origins: in the late 1940s, he created a series of watercolors based on Homer’s Iliad (lots 74 & 79) These works, like lots 77 and 78, are executed in the cubist style prevalent in the New York School immediately prior to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism.
Bearden has asserted that the most important artist to influence his work was George Grosz, with whom he studied for several months in the late 1930s. ‘The drawings of Grosz on the theme of the human situation in post World War I Germany made me realize the artistic possibilities of American Negro subject matter,’ he recalled. Furthermore, Grosz’s shallow-space compositions were a clear influence on Bearden; they are echoed in the 1940s watercolors and pave the way to the collages which became, by the 1960s, his chosen medium.
You Know How It Used To Be (lot 76) is a complex work: the distressed surfaces of the collaged elements are tinted in acid tones and the composition is homogenized with a thick coating of varnish, resulting in an effect of shabbiness which complements the subject, a Southern rural shanty; the crowding of figures in the shallow space add a sense of claustrophobia. It treats the plight of Southern blacks in a way which is simultaneously beautiful and distressing. Manhattan Suite (lot 75) is even more sophisticated: a Harlem tenement building is depicted with a collage of brickwork and fire escapes, punctured with vignettes offering voyeuristic glimpses of the interior, including a photo-montage which appears to be a brothel. These two works offer contrasting visions of the African-American experience; equally persuasive, powerful and beautiful.
Some of Bearden’s themes, such as Woman with Black Leopard (lot 73), are less obvious and topical but tend towards a universal meaning. The subject is illusive and enchants us by the starkly silhouetted figure placed against a lush tropical ground, tended by her mysterious panther. The large canvas from 1961 (lot 80) is a scintillating exercise in abstraction; its title Mountain of Heaven suggests the artist had, within this work too, a deeper intention. This potential for greater interpretation elevates Bearden’s oeuvre beyond the confines of the African-American experience and confronts us with a sensibility which speaks for all people, in all places.
*Romare Bearden, “Rectangular Structure in My Montage Paintings”, first published in Leonardo, vol. 2, April 1968, pp 11-49
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