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Newark Museum hosts exclusive Metropolitan Area Romare Bearden retrospective
Romare Bearden (American, 1911-1988), The Baptism, 1978. Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper. Collection of The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina. Museum Purchase: Funds provided by the Charlotte Garden Club, the YAMS, the Collector’s Circle, and Exchange Funds from the Gift of Harry and Mary Dalton. 2005.86.1 Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

NEWARK, NJ.- Metropolitan area museum goers have an opportunity to view a major retrospective of the work of Romare Bearden (1911-1988), one of America’s preeminent African American artists and foremost collagists, exhibited exclusively at the Newark Museum through August 19.

Organized by Carla Hanzal, Curator of Contemporary Art at The Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC, Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections examines how the life in the South had a lasting impact on Bearden’s work. Featuring 80 works of art drawn from Mint Museum’s extensive holdings and from national public and private collections, the exhibition is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

“This retrospective of Bearden’s work underscores not only his artistic mastery, particularly in the technique of collage, but also his narrative and thematic explorations of his native South,” said Mary Sue Sweeney Price, Museum Director and CEO. “It is an important and timely examination of the works of one of our most renowned artists.”

She continued, “we remember with great fondness Romare Bearden’s visits to the Newark Museum, the last when he published his Cajun cookbook. We were honored to consider him a friend of this Museum and a supporter of our AfricanAmerican art collecting focus.”

Southern Recollections highlights themes unexplored in prior exhibitions or publications, and surveys 50 years of the artist’s work including his early abstract paintings and the influential collages that dominated his later body of work. Among the large thematic groupings are selections from the Prevalence of Ritual series, which includes Bearden’s first revolutionary collages that demonstrate his ability to transform life into art, revealing abiding rituals and ceremonies of affirmation. Elements seen in this series were repeated throughout Bearden’s entire career as icons for his statements about life in America. One such icon is the locomotive, which not only symbolizes a means of moving from one place (or mode of life) to another but also references the Underground Railroad, as well as the migration of Southern blacks to northern cities in the early twentieth century.

Complementing this major exhibition is an installation of Bearden's work from the Newark Museum's collection organized by Curator of American Art Mary-Kate O’Hare. Spanning the 1940s through the 1980s, this selection of works highlights Bearden’s exploration of a wide variety of media — including collage, printmaking, painting and watercolor and features the major themes and subjects Bearden explored throughout his long and productive career, such as jazz, landscape, the nude and his native southern culture.

“The Newark Museum has a long commitment to collecting Romare Bearden’s work, a commitment that began in the 1940s and continues today as represented by the most recent acquisition of his work in 2004,” said O’Hare.

Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections
Southern Recollections traces critical themes Bearden returned to throughout his career, including music, religion, social change, and family, particularly informed by an African-American experience. The earliest group of works, from the 1940s, focuses on his memories of the rural South, painted in tempera on brown paper and characterized by strong colors, flattened perspective, and stylized, highly formal compositions. Such works as The Visitation (1941) and Folk Musicians (1942) depict scenes of agrarian life yet also portray universal emotional bonds.

As Bearden developed his iconic collage technique in the mid-1960s, he made use of a wide range of art practices, both Western and non-Western. His use of collage, with its distortions, reversals, and surrealistic blending of styles, enabled Bearden to convey the dreamlike quality of memory, and was, therefore, a perfect vehicle for recording his memories of the South.

After helping to organize an artist’s group in support of civil rights in 1963, Bearden’s work became more overtly political. One of his most famous series, Prevalence of Ritual, concentrated primarily on his knowledge and experience of African American life, and the myth, rituals, and socially maintained rites within communities. Collages like Prevalence of Ritual: Tidings (1964) examined the evolving nature of African-Americans’ rights. Though rooted in traditional renderings of the Biblical Annunciation with an angel greeting a young woman and offering a flower, Bearden’s addition of symbols, including the train in the background and birds flying through the sky, perhaps implied a journey towards greater freedom and equality made possible by the civil rights movement. In Carolina Reunion (1975), the subject matter is emblematic of the longing for a better life and the comforting familiarity of home embodied in the northern migration of African-Americans from the South during the early part of the twentieth century.

Bearden returned to his birthplace, Charlotte, in the seventies as his career was beginning to gain momentum. This Southern homecoming proved bittersweet. The city was undergoing urban renewal, and already traces of Bearden’s past had been erased. This nostalgic experience imbued Bearden with a greater sense of urgency to both celebrate and to eulogize a lost way of life, a theme that would inform his artwork for the remainder of his career. Drawn to “journeying things”—trains and birds—his inclusion of these recurring motifs implied a movement from one way of life to another. Bearden increasingly used richer colors and more decorative patterns to mediate ideas about African-American community.

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