Cummer Museum Romare Bearden now on view

The Cummer Musuem Romare Bearden painting went back on view this spring after a long absence from the museum’s galleries. Bearden (b. Charlotte, North Carolina, 1911-1988) became one of my favorite artists when I “discovered” his work on a trip to Charlotte in 2019. Unexpectedly coming across his painting at The Cummer was a great joy.

I’ve written about Romare Bearden previously, including for where I had the chance to review his 2019 exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. I am attracted to his bold use of color. His unique construction of the figure – often times Black figures – most notably in collage. Bearden is a brilliant storyteller. A historian of the Black experience from the Jim Crow South he was born into, through the mid- and late-20th century New York which formed the back drop for the rest of his life.

Romare Bearden Passion of Christ (1945)

Romare Bearden, ‘Passion of Christ,’ (detail) (1945). Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.

The Cummer Museum Romare Bearden painting is notable for many reasons. Firstly, it is an oil on canvas painting, not a collage for which he became best known. This is an earlier work, the artist being only 34 when it was created. The religious imagery may throw onlookers – it did me – as his fame would become closely aligned to figurative depictions of everyday Black people.

Hints of the master Bearden would become are, however, apparent, starting with his bold application of paint in large color patches, reminiscent of collage. Bearden dropping paint for paper cutouts is foreshadowed here as the image could have been similarly constructed using his future signature medium. The color patches give it a stained glass effect. It’s not difficult to imagine Bearden taking inspiration for this image from a stained glass window inside a church, the artist focusing more on the visuals around him than the sermon.

Also similar to collage, his paint selection does not give the surface of the work a high gloss shine like many oil paintings. Passion of Christ has a matte finish. The paint also possesses a gritty quality – literally, not figuratively. Look close and it appears as though sand has been mixed into the paint. I don’t believe that is the case here, but Bearden clearly wants a rougher texture to the painting’s surface.

What of Bearden’s color selection? Brown, gray, mauve, tan, rust, pale blue predominate. The dull color palatte does nothing to take away from the painting’s vibrancy. In fact, Bearden creates some kind of optical illusion here as, from a distance, the painting appears brightly colored, yet, up close, most of the individual colors he incorporates trend toward the drab side.

Are the fragmented, angular figures an experiment Cubism which came to dominate the later first half of the 20th century? A clear reference to Pablo Picasso’s Cubist-ish masterpiece Guernica (1937) can be seen on the right side of the painting with a bowed horse head and dramatically outstretched arm reaching for the sky behind it. Guernica was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York while Bearden was living there. It’s easy to imagine the artist carefully and closely observing it up close and then incorporating bits and pieces of it into his future work.

Romare Bearden, ‘Passion of Christ,’ (detail) (1945). Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.

I think it’s likely Jacob Lawrence is also an influence here. Lawrence’s Migration series (1941) would have been widely known and admired by 1945. As a fellow Black painter, the highly educated Bearden would have surely studied Lawrence’s use of angular, fragmented figures closely and how they give a picture energy and dynamism. Bearden was well-versed in the Harlem and New York arts scenes and surely Lawrence and Picasso were figures being talked about among colleagues and personally considered.

Distorted faces, angles, geometry, fragmentation, directional arrows, black outlines, a flattened perspective, Bearden has used modern painting devices in rendering a centuries old subject. At this time in New York, Abstract Expressionism was also beginning to take hold in the City. Bearden didn’t pursue abstraction, but its an important consideration to take into account when trying to “read” this picture. As is its creation on the heels of World War II. One of the most important tactics I’ve been taught about deciphering paintings is to consider the historical context into which is was birthed.

What was taking place in 1945? What was Bearden reading? What was he thinking about? Who was he talking to? Whose artwork was he studying? Where was he living? What was fashionable in popular culture?

Digging into these questions allows you to better place yourself into the shoes of the artist.

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville has beautiful, powerful Modern art paintings from many of the era’s most prominent figures – John Singer Sargent, Thomas Hart Benton, Norman Rockwell – what a pleasure it is to see Romare Bearden back among them.

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