An encounter with the art of Romare Bearden (who died in 1988 at 75) can be jarring, confusing and even distracting at first, like entering a room to find six people all talking at you at once. There's so much going on, some of it seemingly self-contradictory, that it's hard to sort it out and find out what this work is really about. But as it turns out, it's about a lot of things, among them what it's like to be an American.
A tour of the major Bearden retrospective, "Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden 1940-1987," at Washington's National Museum of American Art throws all of him at you, and it's a lot to take in. Consider:
The influences range from Dutch genre paintings to abstract expressionism and include cubism, the cutouts of Matisse, the faceting of stained-glass windows, African art, the women of many painters, including Titian, Manet and Matisse, music (especially jazz) and quilt-making (these are clearly patchworks in which the design -- both visual and iconographic -- gradually manifests itself).
The works for which Bearden is best-known, from the 1960s onward, are an unusual but rich mixture of collage, photography, drawing, painting. There is often a delight in sheer multiplicity. In "La Primavera" (1967) the woman's right eye is from one source, her left from another, her ear from another, her nose from another and her mouth from still another; she seems to be part white and part black. The people in this work are both inside and outside, for there are fields and mountains in the middle distance but the space is also walled in, with a window through which can be seen the sun.
The subject matter is equally varied: the Trojan War, the &L; "Odyssey," bullfighting, the life of Jesus, music, magic, life in a bordello, the lush beauty of the tropics, and African-American life, both rural and urban.
The meanings of Bearden's works can be multiple and even conflicting, leaving possibilities open. What, for instance, of "Prelude to Farewell" (1981)? In purely visual terms it is far from one of Bearden's most complex works: an interior in which a younger woman stands in a tub bathing, while an older woman nearby clasps her hands in front of her; out of the window can be seen a train.
Is this about freedom or death -- is the young woman about to escape the confines of this house, or is the old woman about to die, or both? Is it about escape or enslavement? The train would seem to suggest escape, but Bearden said that trains in his work stood for the intrusion of whites into black life, so it may stand for slavery, or perhaps even rape. The farewell may be a farewell to innocence.
In "La Primavera," a black boy stands to one side offering something green on a tray; this may symbolize fertility, but on the other hand it may symbolize bondage, for the boy and his gesture recall 19th-century paintings in which a black slave child waits on the white family.
The visitor in "The Visitor" (1976) appears to be a figure that stands for African heritage and African art, both in the stylized, mask-like features of the face and the patternings of the clothes. But again there is the train. Has this African heritage come to stay, or is it about to be taken away by the white culture?
Contradiction and clarity
With Bearden, however, ultimately contradiction leads to clarity: The more the layerings of his works pile up, paradoxically, the clearer he becomes. For surely the underlying text of his work has to do with the complexity of living as a minority in a culture that is both one's own and alien.
As a black in America, Bearden was surrounded by a civilization structured by whites and descended from thousands of years of European history. He didn't turn his back on all that; indeed it exists in his work at all levels -- think of Dutch genre painting, of "The Odyssey," of collage itself. But at the same time, and equally, his effort was to discover, depict and preserve African and African-American art, history and life.
To experience Bearden's art is to be given a glimpse of the African-American experience: what it is like to live at once in two equally demanding worlds -- in some ways alike and in some ways different, even opposed -- and to try to piece together out of them a coherent whole. That's why collage -- forming a work of bits and pieces from many sources -- represents not only process but also meaning in Bearden's work.
While Bearden's art is largely peopled with blacks -- both in depicting everyday life and in such symbolic works as "Black Madonna and Child" (1969) -- it would be a mistake to think of him narrowly as an artist of black America. He is partly that, but his art also has a far wider, indeed a universal, theme in its reflection of each person's struggle to balance individual, group and societal identity. This theme is especially evident in the counterpoint between works almost suffocatingly crowded with figures, such as "The Street" (1975) or "Farewell Eugene" (1978), and others in which the figure appears alone and often naked, as in "Blue Monday" (1969) or "Evening" (1978).
And that the struggle for an integrated but individual identity is especially difficult in America is what gives Bearden's work its strongly American character. For his crowded images reflect this polyglot society, in which each not only is a minority of one but also belongs to a minority of one or another kind -- of race, gender, ethnic origin, religion, sexual preference -- or actually some combination of those and perhaps others.
Embrace of opposites
Then, too, works that are open to multiple interpretations, and sometimes seem to hide their essence even as they reveal it, speak of a society in which the search for identity may require at times the embrace of opposites. To look at Bearden is inevitably to think of Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
Considering all that Bearden contains, it is not surprising that he came to his true, mature style relatively late, as this large and admirable retrospective shows. Born in 1912, he grew up partly in the rural South, partly in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Harlem. At first an illustrator, he did work for the Baltimore Afro-American from 1931 to 1935. He gained his first major recognition with a mid-1940s series on the life of Jesus, in a style that recalls the look of stained glass windows.
Other series followed, but in the 1950s and early 1960s, influenced by the abstract expressionists, he turned to abstraction. It proved a dead end for him, and by the mid-1960s he broke into what was to become his signature style, what he called his collage paintings. These continued until the end, embracing a wide range of subject matter from urban life to music to myth to the flora and fauna of the island of St. Martin, which he visited repeatedly.
The exhibit contains all of this, in well-labeled thematic sections with such titles as "Signifying the Spiritual," "Conjuring the Woman" and "Projecting the Human Condition." The accompanying catalog is notable for, among other things, the clarity of its writing by essayists Sharon F. Patton, chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem (where the show originated) and Mary Schmidt Campbell, New York cultural affairs commissioner and Bearden scholar.
Schmidt Campbell is particularly acute in pointing out that Bearden's art anticipated the rise of a multicultural, socially conscious art in the 1980s and 1990s. She also seems to imply that Bearden's work was a, or the, principal cause of these major developments, without really making clear how. "If he did, in fact, discover new territory, what impact has his discovery had on the work of other artists?" is a question that she asks but never fully answers. It may be that no answer is yet possible, that we need a longer perspective for the whole truth of Bearden's contribution to become evident.
Where: National Museum of American Art, 8th and G streets Northwest, Washington, D.C.
When: Daily (except Christmas day) 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., through Jan. 3.
% Call: (202) 357-2247.