“The Richness of a Life I Know”
The Collages of Romare Bearden
Looking at Romare Bearden’s collages, I am struck by his rich content related to home and memory as well as his formal mastery of collage. Working within the milieu of the burgeoning civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960’s, Bearden was drawn to the critical, expressive potential of collage and assemblage. He first studied at the Art Student’s League with George Grosz from 1936-37, a time when he was creating biting political cartoons protesting against white supremacism and poverty and unemployment among African Americans. After the war, he had a career as an abstract painter in New York, only starting to make collages in 1964.
Throughout his artistic life Bearden was fully committed to expressing his socially engaged position without sacrificing a set of strong convictions about the formal values of visual art. His balance between content and design is something that I admire immensely and aspire to attain. As a formalist, he studied composition from the Dutch interiors of DeHooch and Vermeer, as well as learning modernist structure from Cubism. He took these influences and developed a style that was inimitably his own, opening out the structured, crowded space of Cubist pictures to include more expansive, empty or lightly patterned areas. His self-professed aim was “ to reveal through pictorial complexities the richness of a life I know” (Taylor 199). His street scenes of black life in 1960’s New York as well as his pieces inspired by his memories of his childhood in the South are formally tight but also inventive and expressive of the complex pleasures and pains of home.