Romare Bearden exhibit features Southern connections

Romare Bearden show opens at Emory’s Carlos Museum on Saturday

Show features master collage artist’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad” series based on the Homer epics, highlights Bearden’s strong ties to Atlanta’s black community

When the Carlos Museum at Emory University opens two engaging exhibitions this weekend featuring the work of Romare Bearden, visitors will be told two stories of the American master. One is Bearden’s own take on a pair of epic poems; the other is told of Bearden and his poetic life by Atlantans who knew him deeply.

“Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” focuses on a series of collages (and eventually watercolors) Bearden made in the 1970s that recount one of his favorite texts, Homer’s “The Odyssey.” In the series, first exhibited in 1977, his characters are black, reflecting himself and the community that raised him, from rural North Carolina to Harlem. Those works, including a 1940s series of drawings and watercolors depicting “The Iliad,” are the bulk of the nearly 60 in this half of the show, on tour from The Smithsonian. They fill the main gallery.

It is the smaller, companion show, “Southern Connections: Bearden in Atlanta,” in an adjacent gallery that tells a lesser known, more intimate story about the man and how he connected with African-American artists and thinkers in the Deep South, particularly in Atlanta. Both shows open Saturday, Dec. 14, at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum and run through March 9, 2014.

They are stories such as this one.

Of all the visits Romare Bearden made to Atlanta throughout his career, if there’s one that stands out it’s the one with his wife, Nanette, back in 1981.

It was about a year after President Jimmy Carter had honored him at the White House and a few years before he received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan. Bearden had long been drawn to Atlanta because of a small, solid patron base for the paintings and collages that had made him one of the 20th century’s American masters. But he had also made abiding friendships with some of black Atlanta’s who’s who, especially those associated with the city’s cluster of historically black colleges.

On this day, Bearden mingled with guests at the home of Richard Long, then a professor at Atlanta University and considered the dean of the city’s black arts scene. Long’s home was always the rest stop for artists such as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, and it was no different for Bearden.

Dozens of guests included John and Lillian Lewis, Andrew and Jean Young, Hank Aaron’s wife, Billye, Maynard Jackson’s extended family, Dr. O.T. Hammonds’ (whose south Atlanta home would later become a museum with a large collection of Bearden’s work) and up-and-comers Shirley Franklin and Monica Kaufman (Pearson).

“It was like a fundraiser for an independent Atlanta school and for Nanette’s dance school so Bearden brought small works that people could afford, and most of them were originals,” said Susan Ross, who took pictures that evening. “Some people there were already collectors of his work, but for many there that night it was the moment they became art collectors. Bearden had actually lowered some of the prices that night, but for many of them it was still a stretch to buy one. Remember, at that time everybody in the room wasn’t famous.”

One of Ross’ candid photographs from that night is in the exhibit, as is another of Bearden taken by Atlanta photographer Jim Alexander when Bearden came to the official opening of the Neighborhood Arts Center in 1978. That was an artists’ collective primarily serving the Pittsburgh and Mechanicsville neighborhoods, and was an initiative of the era meant to tackle blight and promote inclusion through art. Bearden donated work for the opening, and one of its galleries was named for him.

But apart from his friendships with Long and his patron Dr. Hammonds, why would Bearden, who died in 1988, come to what amounted to the opening of a community center? “Southern Connections,” explores those larger reasons, through lithographs, photographs, paintings and archival records. Many of the visual works in this half of the show were loaned by the Hammonds House Museum, Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries and private collectors. Many photographs and transcripts of Bearden interviews come from Emory’s MARBL archives.

In them we see that the artist who began his life in Mecklenburg County, N.C. and later moved with his family to Pittsburgh, Pa., and later Harlem, began his associations with Atlanta back in the 1940s. He’d come on a pilgrimage of sorts to meet Hale Woodruff, then on faculty at Atlanta University. Like Bearden, Woodruff had begun his career as a cartoonist. Woodruff had become an influential national artist and was about to inaugurate the Atlanta University Art Annuals, which was to become the premiere art exhibition for black artists for a quarter century.

At that time what came to be known as the Atlanta University Center, including then-Clark College, Spelman and Morehouse colleges, had also been home to playwright Owen Dodson and international sculptor Nancy Prophet. In one of the transcripts on view, Bearden describes Prophet walking around her classroom studio in a flowing robe “like some Greek Cybelle,” whispering to her students as they worked. “She was rather grand, talking about Europe,” he said.

“In that one visit, Bearden saw that there was a legitimate, creative environment around what Woodruff and the others were doing, this expression of black artistic and intellectual thought, and he maintains his relationship with Woodruff,” said Amalia Amaki, co-curator, with Amanda Hellman, of “Southern Connections.”

In describing Bearden’s work, especially his collages, people often refer to jazz. Just a glance and the references are evident: confident and bold improvisation; a masterful ability to, with a few seemingly discordant notes — or in Bearden’s case, scissor cuts — render an emotion so true it startles. It’s the blues on paper.

What’s less evident for many viewers are the strong influences of black cultural and intellectual movements on his work, from the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the Industrial North, to the Harlem Renaissance, to the Civil Rights Movement. Bearden was steeped in all of them, from his mother’s involvement in community organizing in Harlem, to the protests and unrest of the 1960s. It was in the 1960s in New York that Bearden and other artists formed Spiral, an attempt to figure out the role of artists in the civil rights movement.

“And 22 years after that first visit to Atlanta, when Bearden starts Spiral, one of the first people he contacted to get it started was Hale Woodruff,” Amaki said.

It’s said that Woodruff gave the collective its name, a group of people moving up and out. Although the group did not last long, part of its mission, one that had long been a guiding principle for Bearden, was to help young artists in any way he could, which is one reason Bearden accepted the invitation to the Neighborhood Arts Center opening.

What also comes through in the shows at the Carlos is another desire of Bearden’s, one that compelled those gathered at Long’s home more than 30 years ago to dig deeply into their pockets. Most of all, Bearden wanted to create work depicting African-American characters, work that spoke to universal themes of love, longing, joy and loss. For him, the African-American story, with its roots in the Deep South, was an American story, an inextricable part of the national whole.

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