Portraits of the artist as a young man: Romare Bearden’s autobiographical collages

The US artist Romare Bearden, who died in 1988, is having his autobiography re-told at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta this month with the exhibition Something Over Something Else. The show will reunite around 30 collages from this two-part Profile Series in which Bearden looks back at his life as a boy and a young artist in the 1920s and 1930s. Bearden made the works following Calvin Tomkinss 1977 feature-length biography in The New Yorker magazines“Profiles” section, titled “Putting Something over Something Else”, after Beardens statement: “I really think the art of painting is the art of putting something over something else”.

The collages—the largest section of the group exhibited since New York shows in 1979 and 1981—are placed in their original chronology with the handwritten captions that Bearden concocted with his friend, the writer Albert Murray. “I was especially fascinated by the captions that went with each of the objects, which really felt unique in Beardens oeuvre,” says Stephanie Heydt, the Highs curator of American art, who co-organised the show with the Bearden scholar Robert G. OMeally. In the series of collages, Bearden “engages almost every kind of approach to artmaking that he had used over the course of his career”, Heydt says, referring to the magazine clippings, colour paper, layered fabric, watercolour and gouache. With these small-format works, “I feel like hes begging you to come close, engage with him” Heydt says.

Something Over Something Else: Romare Beardens Profile Series, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 14 September-2 February 2020; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, 28 February-24 May 2020)

Romare Bearden, “Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Mecklenberg County, School Bell Time” (1978) © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

(Bearden: "Once it was mid-September again, it was back to Miss Pinkney and books, black-boards, rulers and finger nail inspection.") — This is the first work in the series and depicts Beardens earliest memory, aged six, of the first day of school. While the series is Beardens personal story, Heydt says, it might not be 100% factual. For instance, Heydt says, there has been debate over—and research into—whether or not Miss Pinkney was a real schoolteacher in Beardens hometown of Charlotte. “But I think that really isnt the point here,” Heydt says. “Its really about this experience—the sort of anxiety and excitement that you feel on that first day of school… a universal expression.”

Romare Bearden, “Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene” (1978) © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

(Bearden: "The sporting people were allowed to come but they had to stand on the far right.") — This is the only picture in the series that directly relates to a story in the New Yorker profile, Heydt says. When Bearden was a young boy in Pittsburg, a slightly older boy called Eugene Bailey, who lived in the same boarding house, owned by Beardens maternal grandmother, taught him to draw. “Bearden really attributes this relationship with Eugene as the seed that was planted for him in terms of the power and role of art in someones life,” Heydt says. Eugene died when they were just boys, in 1925, and Bearden chose to depict his friends funeral, rather than their time spent drawing together, which Heydt says she always found curious. “This memorial to Eugene in the series is the last picture that he includes part one… its sort of concluding his childhood memories,” she says.

Romare Bearden, “Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Johnny Hudgins Comes On” (1981) © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

(Bearden: "He was my favorite of all comedians. What Johnny Hudgins could do through mime on an empty stage helped show me how worlds were created on an empty canvas.") — The series is “almost like a Kunstroman—where the artist is sort of looking back identifying all the things that influenced him”, Heydt says, so she says it is “not insignificant” that this depiction of the stage performer Johnny Hudgins, whom Bearden credits as a major inspiration, comes right before Beardens depiction of himself as an artist in the series chronology. “To juxtapose [this image of Hudgins] with the very next picture where hes showing himself in his performance mode, which is as artist, is the benefit of pulling together the series,” Heydt says.

Romare Bearden, “Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Pepper Jelly Lady” (1981) © 2019 Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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