The Storyteller

October 1, 2012

by John Dorfman

Romare Bearden, whose centennial celebration continues this fall, collaged diverse elements—visual, musical, literary and historical—into a unique American art.

Romare Bearden was at home in many worlds. That’s remarkable for any artist; indeed for any person, but especially so for an African-American person born when Bearden was—in 1911. The artist’s centennial is being celebrated through the end of this year with many museum and gallery exhibitions, and a look at the wide range of work represented should convince anyone with eyes to see that it’s impossible to pigeonhole Bearden, whether it be as a regionalist, a black artist, a collagist, even a modernist. He was all of those things, and more.

Certainly he was a multitalented man—so much so that he might have succeeded in any number of areas, and it’s art’s good fortune that he chose to focus his energies there. His college degree was in the demanding field of mathematics, and he was athletic enough to play professional baseball, doing a brief stint with an all-black team in Boston. He was a skilled writer who fluently explained his artistic purpose and technique. And most important of all, he had great musical ability. For a while in the 1950s he branched off into full-time composing, with considerable success—his song Sea Breeze gave Billy Eckstine his first hit. Music was always a big part of the artist’s life. Growing up in Harlem in the ’20s and ’30s, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, friends of his parents, were frequent guests at the dinner table. His collages and paintings frequently refer to musical subject matter, in particular the jazz of Harlem and New Orleans, their foregrounds bristling with the trumpets, trombones and basses of a street band. There’s a quality of synesthesia about Bearden’s work, a continuity between aural and visual experience that makes complete sense in light of the artist’s background and talents.

As a visual artist