Romare Bearden at the confluence of art and jazz

Romare Bearden at the confluence of art and jazz

"You put down one color, and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody," says jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in the 2002 art documentary, The Art of Romare Bearden, as he discusses how Bearden's art is like jazz in many ways.

Ultimately this call-and-response rhythm extends to the relationship between artist and viewer, as is the case with all meaningful art.

I just watched this fascinating documentary last night, and it's been percolating in me all day today, like the train rhythms Marsalis describes as part of Southern mythology and interwoven into jazz, blues, and other musical forms. Many of Bearden's collages, such as "Train Whistle Blues" and "Tomorrow I May Be Far Away," put these percussive train sounds into visual form.

Bearden, or "Romie," as his friends called him, was born in North Carolina but grew up in New York during the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. What an exciting time and place to be alive! Family friends included such luminaries as jazz pioneer Duke Ellington, poet Langston Hughes, civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, and singer/actor/scholar/activist Paul Robeson.

Bearden's work incorporated many elements of the Harlem jazz and theater scene as well as the agrarian landscape of his family background. His family also lived in Pittsburgh for a time, and its smokestacks and heavy industry were later influences on his work. Bearden’s "Pittsburgh Memory," shown above, conveys this sense of urban alienation.

As a young man, Romare Bearden believed African-American artists should work from their own experiences and incorporate elements of their everyday lives rather than draw on the work of European artists. But later he changed his mind about this and started including elements of European art, African masks, landscapes, and basically whatever he felt compelled to use in his art. He wanted to be known as an artist rather than pigeonholed as an African-American artist.

"The artist has to be something like a whale," he said, "swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything." What a great quote! I couldn't agree more.

Bearden served in the army in World War II, and afterward went to Paris to work on his art and later back to Harlem. He was one of the artists in the 306 Group, a collective that included notable artists such as Jacob Lawrence.

He studied at New York's Art Students League and experimented with abstract expressionism, cubism, and other art forms. However, he didn't really find his own voice until the 1960s, when he pioneered an edgy form of cubist-inspired collage and assemblage that packed the visual punch for which he became famous.

Finally he was successful enough to quit his day job and do art full-time. In his later years he spent much time on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, where his wife's family was from.

When I first saw Bearden's work in Smithsonian magazine a few years ago, suddenly I deeply understood what collage was really all about - and how it could be used to powerfully convey emotions. This movie brought it all home for me.