Thomas Wolfe, the late Southern novelist, wrote: "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to the escapes of Time and Memory" in You Can't Go Home Again.
That's true in a literal sense.
But Romare Bearden did find a way to go back home through his art and in doing so, found himself and greatness.
The Tampa Museum of Art has an exhibition of Bearden's gorgeous collages that aren't "escapes of Time and Memory." They are instead releases of time and memory.
Bearden (1911-1988) was born in Charlotte, N.C., to a family who became affluent during Southern Reconstruction then slowly lost their fortune in the Jim Crow era. Bearden's parents were part of the Great Migration of blacks who moved north. The Beardens settled in Harlem when Romare was a toddler, leaving behind a large family of parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins. Many among the family were light-skinned. His father, Howard Bearden, who had a college degree, worked as a waiter for a railroad company. Romare Bearden returned to visit his North Carolina family for five summers but those trips ended after 1925. He didn't return until 1940.
By then, he had studied art and art history, begun painting seriously and had a day job as a social services case worker. His style during that time was similar to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's realism.
Abstraction, of course, would become the big deal during World War II, when Bearden served in the army, and in the early 1950s, when he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris under the GI Bill. He used abstraction but could never fully embrace it.
Bearden began experimenting with collage (he called it montage) early in his career but only in the late 1950s, when he was middle-aged, did he take it seriously. By the early 1960s, his collages were gaining fame, and by the time of death, he pretty much owned the medium and had become a revered artist.
The Tampa Museum of Art show is mostly about Bearden's later years and it's specifically about his works that convey the life of black Southerners. As many writers have noted, collage worked so well for him because it allowed him to use fragments of his memories, dim because he was so young when he left the South, along with his adult knowledge and beliefs.
Collage also allowed him to avoid the sentimentality, pathos and political didacticism that informed so much of the art depicting the black experience during a charged racial era. The life he portrays embraces the difficulties for Southern blacks but it also acknowledges its grace, particularly the dignity of daily rituals, strength of family and the comfort of faith. This is a world closed to white people. We interpolate that discrimination shaped the way black people lived but there is in these scenes a sense that it didn't affect what they were to themselves and each other.
The earliest collages here, from the 1960s (with a few into the 1970s) use a lot of photographic images cut from magazines. They introduce images and themes Bearden would return to for the rest of his life: the train that ran on tracks just beyond homes, the simple, even primitive conditions of the homes, the pleasure of shared food and music, family gatherings and the rural countryside. He cuts and pastes photos to create the faces and bodies. I don't find them to be the strongest examples of his collage. In The Train, for example, the children and adults approach caricature, reinforced by the watermelon which is made from painted paper. If Bearden were a white artist, the work would probably be considered racist. As it is, it seems to give us stereotypes.
His move to collages made from paper and fabrics allows his people to become archetypal. Details are both of a specific place and time as well as symbols. Women appear as images of solid maternal strength and lithe procreative vessels. They're in the former category in Gospel Morning in which one sits as if enthroned, attended by two others holding a tambourine and a book, presumably a Bible. A man in a black suit sits to the side in a posture of prayer. The landscape visible through a window seems to blaze with Eucharistic fire. The luminous swirls of yellow on the women's dresses connect them to the sacred moment. Yet there is more. Chickens milling about suggest the everyday farm-to-table way the family lived. They also hint at the practices of hoodoo, the folk magic that often used animal parts in conjuring or healing, which was a part of rural Southern culture. Compared to The Train, it is emotionally neutral though the room contains a wealth of cultural commentary and nuance. It's also beautifully composed. You can't look at it without thinking of Matisse, who was one of Bearden's greatest influences.
Moonlight Prelude is a compendium of references that Bearden has woven into a gorgeous landscape that's part dream, part reality. It is split horizontally into uneven thirds. At the top is a dark blue sky, full moon, black birds wheeling and a train on a raised track shining a beam and spouting smoke. It's done in the style of Matisse's simple, graphic cutouts. Through the criss-cross supports of the platform in the second third of the collage is lush green foliage seen impressionistically. Fauve red colors the small hills of the foreground where a nude woman reclines and a fully dressed man strums a guitar, an arrangement that mines Manet's Luncheon on the Grass and Ingres' Grande Odalisque. The reason it's so good is the way in which Bearden can take those visually diverse cues and integrate them into something completely original.
As a white woman, I'm not the person to dissect everything Bearden expresses. But these collages have a depth of humanity and surface appeal that transcend the divides in race and culture. That's the truth of all great art.
The Tampa Museum of Art has two smaller shows on view. Don Zanfagna is an artist you have likely never heard of. He has worked in obscurity while living an intensely interesting life. This collection of collages, titled "Cyborgs," was created mostly in the 1970s. They are mostly schematics of imaginary DNA experiments to produce humanoids. They're inventive, slightly crazy with a bit of paranoia. I liked them.
A small but exceptional installation is also at the museum and reinterprets one by John Cage the composer, artist and writer. It's curated by Jade Dellinger, who also organized another Cage centennial homage at Tempus Projects gallery in Tampa that closes today. In 33 1/3, record players are arranged on plinths in a circle in a large gallery. Visitors can select from hundreds of LPs and play them. The resulting music, audience-created, is the art. Dellinger asked about 30 people to give him a list of 10 records they would like in the show. He has an impressive list of contacts so there's a broad representation from the music world. Who knew Iggy Pop was a fan of deceased blues guitarists?
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.