I have always resonated deeply to artists and writers who are able to resurrect and reconstruct the intense moments/images of childhood, and excavate those memories to create new, compelling works of art. When novelist Alice Munro described the worn dismal linoleum of her childhood home in Canada, she expressed a telling detail that allowed me to “see” the whole house, her town, the community, the era, everything. And Jack Kerouac’s eccentric riffs about his introspective-yet-raucous boyhood on the mean streets of Lowell Massachusetts left me feeling transported and jazzed. American collagist, Romare Bearden (1911 – 1988) had that same singular gift. In this marquee exhibit of over 80 works, he reaches out and embraces fleeting moments in his childhood; and preserves them, fully intact. Every detail, every nuance, every train whistle, every blue note of a harmonica, every squawk of a chicken, every buzz of a bee. Far deeper than memory, much more meaningful than mere nostalgia, the emotion behind the work is intense and gripping, yet strangely soothing.
Bearden’s work is full of push/pull. At first glance, it seems direct and full of contemporary color-blocking. Graphic, strong, modern, full-throttle. But when you approach the work, you find yourself leaning forward to “hear” the narrative; longing to know the stories, and be included. In many of his collages, he seems totally hell bent to “list” and enumerate everything in the scene – the slightly-wonky hurricane lantern on the sideboard, the wide-open doors and windows ever-hopeful for a passing breeze but just as likely to usher in chickens from the yard, piled-high laundry baskets, coverlets and old quilts tossed over stair railings and stuffed into odd corners, and the passing train (always a train) whistling by, so close to the little wooden houses. He has full ownership of these memories and details, he has internalized every nuance, and he uses paper (in all of its variety) to recover and retell his personal story.
He once said “Time is a pattern…..You can come back to where you started from with added experience and you hope for more understanding.” He had complete trust and faith in his own process, and felt assured that he would be able to balance everything that needed to appear in a work, without ever giving up the overall integrity of the collage.The real stars of his collages are the people – the story tellers, the source of all the pathos. Whether they are simply cut from solid colored paper, and shown in dramatic silhouette style…..or an amalgam of mad clippings from magazines/newspapers, cobbled together and strangely cohesive --- People are front-and-center in Bearden’s work. Centerstage, they pull us into the story; and we experience them in a way that is vital and real. We eavesdrop as a group of cotton pickers gather at dawn, their empty sacks at the ready….the men are clearly taking enjoyment in one another’s company, even though a day of crushing brutal labor awaits. They share a grin, a story, a bit of news from another farm. Some look old, seasoned and bent; others are young, muscular and eager-to-be somewhere-else. We stand apart from them, and observe them. Not accepted in their company, but allowed to witness them. Thanks to Bearden.
In another collage, a solitary woman moves through her home, heading for a basket of laundry, engulfed in her routine, as a falling star shoots past a window in a nearby hallway. The unseen glittering star brings us into the story……We suddenly feel regret that the woman, so deserving of magic and beauty, has not seen the star; and it becomes a shared secret between the artist and the viewer.
In Bearden’s collages of blues musicians, we see men assuming a new role for an evening – dressed up in flashy clothes, holding their instruments aloft like badges of honor; they gather in clumps or on makeshift bandstands, and we can easily imagine the ruckus.
One of his often-repeated images was a nude young woman, somewhat odalisque-like, shown bathing; frequently with an older woman nearby provided a protective presence. Thanks to Bearden, we get to inhabit another life, another reality, another time.
Bearden’s work affirms my own feeling that collage is about the art of “Call & Response”. It is an art form that relies on curiosity, spontaneity, and the willingness to let one thing lead to the “next” thing. It urges us to take a different approach, change directions, paint over, keep going, and (best of all) tell our story. “Southern Recollections” is the most definitive exhibit of Bearden’s work I have seen; and the exuberant bounty of this stunning exhibit left me feeling stirred, inflamed, and in awe of this great American visual historian and collage master.
The prize provided by Lynne for the lucky draw is :
#A new copy of THE ART OF ROMARE BEARDEN by Ruth Fine
#A packet of 6 of Lynne Perrella's Bearden "tribute" notecards. You can see these cards on Lynne's website here and Etsy shop here. Please go and have a look at them. They are vibrant and bold and BEAUTIFUL!!! Lynne has used photographs that her husband John took in South Africa during his work as a visiting hospice nurse.
"Romare bearden has been one of my Art influences for decades. When I saw the series of commemorative postage stamps that were recently done in his honor, I wanted to create my own homage. I had no desire to "copy" Bearden, but I wanted to work with his "signature" ideas -- stabs of color, slices of photos, bold compositions, and narrative intensity." - Lynne Perrella
The winner will be announced on the 19th August.
The Newark Museum website here