Imagined Landscapes: The South and the City in the Work of Romare Bearden

When Romare Bearden died in 1988, The New York Times remembered him as “one of America's pre-eminent artists” and “the nation’s foremost collagist.” An artist with a singular style, Bearden had taken the 20th-century invention of collage (often attributed to Cubist pioneers Pablo Picasso and George Braque) and developed it into his own rich visual language, one shaped by living history.

Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911, and his family moved to Harlem when he was a child, as a part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South. In New York City, he was exposed to cultural leaders of the Harlem Renaissance like Duke Ellington (a second cousin) and W.E.B. Dubois. The city’s landscape—and the jazz scene that thrived there, which he depicted in many works throughout his career—would leave an indelible mark on Bearden’s work. But North Carolina, where he would continue to visit his family throughout his life, also remained a potent influence.

In the work On Such A Night As This, from 1975, Bearden captures the chaotic excitement of the city. It’s easy to imagine a steamy summer night, with neighbors sitting on the stoop smoking cigarettes and leaning out the windows for air, as others go about their life seemingly oblivious to the cacophony below. In Bearden’s work, these semi-transparent figures overlap one another against the backdrop of a classic New York City brick facade, their various sizes giving a syncopation to the frieze that captures the clamouring of the busy street.  

In contrast, Mecklenburg Evening, a collage and acrylic piece from 1984, recalls a different kind of American landscape. Here, a night of urban revelry is replaced by an almost mystically still evening in Mecklenburg County, where Bearden grew up in North Carolina. There are no figures present. Instead, a tree stretches across the foreground of the composition, almost like an inky photographic negative against the yellow mountains and clouds, and the blue-and-green sky. In the far upper left corner, a bright white crescent moon punctuates the silence.     

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