By Mary Schmidt Campbell

Oxford University Press. 443 pages. £22.99.  ISBN 978-0-19-505909-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It was never going to be easy for a black painter to make his way in the American art world. Even if he displayed a natural talent for drawing he would have found it difficult to obtain any formal training, and in due course acceptance by commercial galleries and public art institutions. Romare Bearden’s life is a story of a struggle to survive as an artist in a hostile or at best, an indifferent society. It raises the question: “Was he an artist, a black artist, or an artist who happened to be black?”

Bearden was born into a middle-class black family in September, 1911. He grew up in what is described as a “privileged world”. His great-grandfather, Henry Kennedy, was a “businessman and property owner……and part of a small circle of black families who thrived in Charlotte (North Carolina) from the end of the nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth”.  Mary Schmidt Campbell says that “Though Charlotte was progressive, it was still mostly segregated”.

Despite some black families being able to succeed to a degree, racial tensions still affected what they could do. Voting rights were limited, for example, and there was always a threat of violence should a black person be accused of breaking racial boundaries, whether laid down in law or by custom. It was not surprising that Romare Bearden’s parents decided to move to New York in 1915. They eventually settled in Harlem.

Bearden’s mother, Bessye, was an activist: “She threw herself into New York politics at a time of increased political opportunity for black women”, and took courses in “public opinion, city history, and civic organisation” at Columbia University. She would clearly have a major influence on his life. as did New York itself. But Campbell points out that his experiences in Pittsburgh, where he “lived twice during his childhood” were equally formative. They gave him the opportunity to take “a close look at the world of migrant steel workers”.

It was in New York, and especially Harlem, that Bearden began to establish a reputation as an artist. The 1930s were years when radicalism, of one kind or another, often predominated in the arts. Artists, writers, and musicians joined the Communist Party, or at least identified with many of its concerns. Bearden’s paintings during this period were influenced by the work of the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Orozco. As Campbell says: “All three employed a style that allowed them to embrace modernism, adopt a highly stylised realism, and portray unabashedly political and social justice content”.

Around the same time, Bearden enrolled at the Art Students’ League (ASL), where he encountered George Grosz, the German artist who had fled Europe when it was obvious that Hitler and his followers would soon come to power. Grosz not only advised Bearden in terms of his painting technique, he also directed his attention to European painters like Brueghel, Goya, Daumier, and Käthe Kollwitz, all of them with a high degree of social commentary in their work.

Bearden may have had some minor success in Harlem. contributing cover illustrations and cartoons to black magazines like Crisis, but it wasn’t sufficient to provide an income to live on. He got a job as a caseworker for New York Social Services, something which he continued to do for many years. It involved him in work that would tie in with his social and artistic intentions.

Bearden had his first solo exhibition in 1940. Campbell says that : “The works resemble the subject matter – if not the style – of social realists like William Gropper, Jack Levine, and Ben Shahn, whose subject-matter focused on victims of social and political injustice”.  But Bearden was soon to dismay many of his admirers. He had become friendly with Carl Holtz, an abstract painter, who took him to the “regular gatherings” at the Greenwich Village studio of “the avant-garde painter John Graham”. It was, according to Campbell, “a focal point” for many of the artists who would later become identified with abstract expressionism, among them Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and Jackson Pollock.

Bearden’s new style, as it developed, in the immediate post-war years, is described by Campbell in these words: “Colour, muted in the social realist paintings, is exuberant in the literary abstractions  - sensual and full of light. Stylistically, Bearden makes use of the abstract modernist vocabulary that mixes the syntax of cubism – the two-dimensional overlapping planes of space, flattened, shallow space that emphasises surface design instead of reproducing a deep perspective –with a suppleness of line reminiscent of the drawings of Matisse of the 1930s and 1940s”.

He still found it frustrating that he was often described as a “black artist” instead of  simply being referred to as an “artist”, and it makes one wonder whether or not his move towards abstraction wasn’t, in part, at least, a way of diverting attention away from his ethnic origins. Campbell seems to suggest that it may have been at least a contributory factor, and that he wanted to “make his work more universally appealing”.

He was still employed as a caseworker, and that commitment, and the necessity for him to care for his aging father, tended to limit his activities among the New York art fraternity, despite having a successful exhibition at the Kootz Gallery. In 1947 he was included in a Paris exhibition of American artists, though it doesn’t appear to have been well received. One French critic was particularly harsh about Bearden’s work and described it as “mediocre”. Bearden did visit Paris in 1950 and met Picasso, Leger, and Brancusi. He also immersed himself in the social life of the city and mixed in bars and clubs with black expatriates.

By the early-1960s, Bearden’s abstractions were starting to show signs of “a sort of lost momentum”. in the words of his dealer. But he had been working on a series of collages, and when these were displayed they immediately brought acclaim from critics. In a way they returned to themes that referred to his experiences in earlier years: “Scenes of the rural South, the cotton fields of Mecklenburg County, trains that connected North and South, the urban streets of Pittsburgh, and Harlem dominated the gallery”. The New York Times described Bearden’s work as “propagandist in the best sense”. In a way it was, with Bearden speaking up for the black experience in America. And doing so at a time when increased assertiveness with regard to Civil Rights and similar matters meant that to refer to a “black artist” was no longer a way of ascribing his work to a lower status than that enjoyed by whites.

The Museum of Modern Art gave Bearden a retrospective show in the early-1970s, though Campbell points out that “whole periods from Bearden’s body of work” were eliminated. His political cartoons from the Depression, the literary abstractions from the 1940s, and the “large non-objective oils from the late-1950s and early-1960s” were curiously missing. Was this Bearden’s choice, or one imposed on him by the gallery? Campbell has no answer, and she mentions that all the paintings on display “were scenes of black life”. Did Bearden simply want to forget about a time when he didn’t care to be singled out as a black artist, though that wouldn’t explain the absence of his 1930s political cartoons? Or was it that MOMA wanted to emphasise the black aspect in his work?

Bearden continued to be active, though a controversy regarding a mural he had created for a hospital caused him to retire to the small island of St Martin in the Caribbean. He had grown increasingly tired of the hectic nature of New York life and was anxious to find somewhere he could work in peace. He died in 1988.

I’m conscious of having moved quickly through Bearden’s life and work, and that I’ve completely overlooked his activities as a writer. He contributed articles and reviews to numerous publications, including exhibition catalogues, magazines, and newspapers. Campbell provides a detailed bibliography of them. I’m similarly conscious of having quoted extensively from Campbell’s description of Bearden’s work. There is a simple explanation for this. I can’t recollect having seen a single canvas by Romare Bearden, though I have come across illustrations In one or two books. And there are some excellent reproductions of his work in the publication under review. Are there examples of his work in any British galleries? Even if one or two do exist, I doubt that Bearden’s name will mean much to most people in the United Kingdom. But Campbell has had the opportunity to study Bearden’s paintings and can describe and analyse them much better than I could.

An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden is a fascinating book, lovingly detailed and closely illustrating how its subject had to struggle, both as an artist and as a black person, to establish a place in the history of art in America.