Charlotte 'Left Huge Impact' On Artist Romare Bearden, Biographer Says

Sep 10, 2019

Charlotte likes to associate itself with artist Romare Bearden. He was born in the city in 1911, though only lived here three years. Bearden was considered one of the nation’s preeminent artists when he died in 1988.

Credit CARL VAN VECHTEN / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A park in uptown bearing his name opened in 2013.

Bearden’s life is chronicled in the book "Romare Bearden: An American Odyssey," which was published last year. Its author, Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell, joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry with more on Bearden.

Marshall Terry: Bearden began his career in the 1930s. How hard was it for a black artist to break into the art world at that time?

Mary Schmidt Campbell: Ironically the 1930s was a great time to be a black artist, and the irony is that it was during the depression and during the time of the WPA, and the WPA was one of the relief programs that Franklin Roosevelt had established and it enabled artists — black and white, male and female — to be paid for their easel work, for their mural work, for teaching the arts.

And so, Bearden, although he was not formally on the WPA rolls, was surrounded by a community of artists in Harlem, all of whom had the opportunity to practice their craft. The other opportunity he had was as a cartoonist, and there were a number of really flourishing publications: The Crisis magazine, Opportunity magazine, and black periodicals at that time had enormous readership and circulation and Bearden did cartoons primarily for the Baltimore Afro-American, but also for other periodicals of that day.

Terry: What sort of style was he known for?

Campbell: I think we would call it social realism, and that is that his style was very representational. He painted primarily scenes of black life: Families sitting down to dinner, people at work, two women in a courtyard greeting each other, a man and a woman, a man serenading a woman. They were day-to-day scenes or scenes of social justice or scenes that just portrayed the conditions of black life at that time.

Terry: Well, as we mentioned in the intro, Bearden was born in Charlotte, but he only lived here for three years. Did the city leave an impact on him?

Mary Schmidt Campbell
Credit SPELMAN COLLEGE

Campbell: The city left a huge impact on him. Although he eft at an early age, his parents permitted him to visit Charlotte from time to time and he had very, very vivid memories of his experiences there, of the people there, of the way they lived the life their lives, the way they worshipped. All of that became kind of the building — the sort of building blocks — of his cultural consciousness.

Terry: And did that influence his artwork?

Campbell: It influenced it deeply. It certainly influenced his work when he first started to do his cartoons. He very often had cartoons that were topical political issues and issues that reflected the Jim Crow South.

In his early paintings he had scenes that were very much rooted in rural life as well as the urban North. But then for about 20 years he stopped doing representational art and really focused on abstract painting, and those things kind of disappeared for a while in his art. But when they returned during the civil rights movement, they really returned with a vengeance.

Terry: How involved was he in the civil rights movement itself? Did he see his art as an extension of that?

Campbell So, it's very interesting to follow Bearden's life because when the civil rights movement first started, let's say back in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and the bus boycotts and then later the lunch sit-ins. If you look at his writings and you look at what he was doing, it seems as though the civil rights movement was somewhat peripheral.

But at about in 1963, at the time of the March on Washington, an old friend of his, A. Philip Randolph, who had been the head of the sleeping car porters union, invited Bearden to gather up a group of black artists to go down to the march. And when Bearden reached out to some other black artists, he realized as they gathered together that they had some common interests even though their artwork may be going in very different directions, and in fact the civil rights movement kind of reconnected him to memories and to a consciousness of his black life that he felt really compelled now to visually represent during that era.

Credit OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Terry: Bearden also co-authored a book on the history of African American artists going all the way back to the 18th century. What prompted him to do this? Did he feel that the history might be lost otherwise?

Campbell: He did. Somewhere around 1966 he was invited by the Museum of Modern Art to do a lecture on African American artists, and when he went to look for some literature, he was shocked to find that there was so little.

And here was an artist who had grown up in Harlem, had been surrounded by an extraordinary group of artists, and he goes, you know, years later he goes to look to see what work, what scholarly work there might be on them and he finds virtually none.

And so he committed himself in the last decades of his life to really contributing to the writing and to the interpretation and to the history of documenting the history of African American artists because he felt that history was incredibly rich and incredibly deep and invisible to most of the world.

Terry: What's Bearden's lasting legacy?

Campbell: His lasting legacy is that he signals for a new generation of artists this capacity to continually reinvent yourself, to continually grow, to continually question who you are and what your art is about, and what is really extraordinary is to look at his body of work and to see how he let himself completely reinvent himself from one decade to the next. And I think that is incredibly inspiring to young artists.

The other lasting legacy is a legacy that he leaves that is much like the work of Toni Morrison or August Wilson. And that's artists who really understand that our culture is a culture that has a long lineage, that has incredible layers of complexity and many ties to other cultures, that it's a rich culture that continues to yield and continues to inspire us to this day. Bearden is in that category of artists.