CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver says the intricate and color-drenched art works offer glimpses of life in the country and in the city. They explore classical and modern themes. They are filled with symbols and mystery.
But beyond the power of the work itself, now on view at the prestigious National Gallery of Art in Washington, is the fact that this exhibit — 15 years after Bearden's death — is making art history.
It is the first time in over 62 years that the museum has featured an African American artist in its gallery.
The show is even more wonderful, because Bearden is so revered both by fellow artists and the African American community. He was born in Charlotte, N.C. in 1911. His college-educated parents migrated to New York to escape the Jim Crow laws.
His mother became a columnist for an important African American newspaper and he grew up surrounded by towering figures of the Harlem Renaissance: Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, WEB Dubois. Like their work, his was revolutionary.
"Not only was it a new way of looking at the world, it was a new way of letting the world look at itself," poet Maya Angelou says. "And that is still so."
Angelou got to know Bearden personally and collects his work.
He was a funny man with wonderful sense of humor, and gracious, Angelou says of Bearden. "If you saw Romare Bearden, you wouldn't look at him and say 'That's a black man.' However, he has always clamed his racial ties and has painted out of the culture."
Bearden started college as a math major, but switched to art. In the 1930s he studied with the German expressionist George Grosz. For many years, Bearden was a weekend artist. He kept his day job as a social worker even after his work started to sell.
His first solo show took place while he was doing a stint in the Army. Bearden later used his GI Bill money to study in Paris.
"He looked at Spanish painting, he looked at Mondrian, he looked at Matisse, he looked at Picasso," says the exhibit curator Ruth Fine of Bearden's influences. "I think in the exhibit, one really can see all of these sources."
Fine says she has seen about 1,500 works by Bearden, but there are more.
Bearden loved to try different styles and materials, as he explained, when CBS News Sunday Morning first profiled him in 1980.
"If you want to be an artist, you should never be too sure where you want to go because it'd be too easy to get there," he said. "So all this — the groping and these things — they're all part of being an artist. You want to find gold you got to go off in rugged terrain."
And so he experimented with the techniques used in Mexican mural paintings. He moved on to abstract studies and back to more narrative paintings.
After he married choreographer Nanette Bearden and began spending time at her family home, the Caribbean Island of St. Maarten, he started creating lush landscapes inhabited by exotic creatures.
His most famous pieces are his collages — a technique he began perfecting in the 1960s.
"You put down one thing and another color, and you just let things begin to excite your imagination," Bearden said. "And that's the way I work."
He used magazine photos, colored papers and paint too. Bearden had recurring images such as the train, the rooster, the serpent and the cat. There were also collages inspired by his boyhood in North Carolina and by his years in Harlem.
Fine says the collage is a way to incorporate the notion of popular culture in fine art.
"I think he's very much trying to draw you in," Fine says. "He wants you to be part of this street scene. You're not only a viewer, but a participant."
And many would jump into Bearden's Jazz pictures such as "The Blues" or "Wrapping it up at the Lafayette." Bearden loved jazz so much he even tried his hand at composing.
Branford Marsalis recorded a new version "Sea Breeze" as part of a Bearden tribute album.
He met Bearden when he was thinking of buying one of his paintings.
"The thing that caught me off guard was when he talked about music, he talked about it the way musicians talk about music," Marsalis says. "His paintings have that level, particularly his collages. They definitely have the spirit of improvisation in them."
That meeting with Bearden led Marsalis to become a serious art fan. So he well understands the significance of the National Gallery Exhibit. But he rejects the notion that Bearden is being honored as a black artist.
"He's great and his art belongs there, you know, with all the great 20th century American painters — not because he's black," Marsalis says. "His art is as good as all the other exhibits I've been to ... I'm not saying it with rose colored glasses on … I'm not saying it out of naiveté."
In fact, Bearden's work received important recognition in 1987 when President Reagan awarded him the National Arts Medal.
"Romare Bearden is an exceptional artist, reflecting the American surroundings of his own life," said Nancy Reagan during the ceremony.
And, says Angelou, Bearden managed to create art for all people.
"Bearden uses his imagination to tell us who we are and in his art you see we are black and brown and beige and red and yellow and pink and white," Angelou says. "In his art we are fat and thin and sometimes we were pretty and plain. He's a painter of real life that may appear surreal only because it is so real."
Toward the end of his own life Bearden, made his only self-portrait. He is in his studio a painting just completed. There's a print of a 14th century painting on the wall, a sheet of graph paper drawn with an African mask and studies of his model — all emblematic of Bearden's vision of what art should be.
"I was possibly just trying to give the best justice I can to this visual world that I see and also to the unseen world of affinities and associations that are within all of us," he said.
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The exhibition will travel to four other cities:
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Feb. 7-May 16, 2004
Dallas Museum of Art: June 20-Sept. 12, 2004
Whitney Museum of Art in New York: Oct. 14, 2004-Jan. 9, 2005
High Museum of Art in Atlanta: Jan. 29-April 24, 2005
To help kick off the exhibition tour, the only children's book written and illustrated by Romare Bearden has been published by Simon & Schuster. It's called "Li'l Dan the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story." Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote the forward to the book, and the CD inside is read by Maya Angelou.
Jazz musician Branford Marsalis released a new CD called "Romare Bearden Revealed," released by Marsalis Music. It comprises newly recorded music, as well as "Seabreeze," a piece from the 1950s that Bearden himself wrote.
For more information on Romare Bearden, please contact the Romare Bearden Foundation:
Romare Bearden Foundation
305 Seventh Avenue, 13th floor
New York, NY 10001