Southern Recollections

You leave and then return to the homeland of your imagination.

With that quote, the Newark Museum’s “Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections” came to an end. I’ve been interested in the Southern-born, Harlem-raised artist since I snagged a copy of Romare Bearden in Black and White in high school. To me, Bearden’s collages, or montages, always appeared both visually stimulating and deeply personal, despite being composed of some of the least personal material: mass media.

Until August 19, 2012, the Newark Museum had a retrospective of Bearden’s work on display. The exhibit started primarily with Bearden’s black and white collages, and ended with the mixed media work of his later years.

Because Bearden often reworked his montages in different works over time, “Southern Recollections” had the unique opportunity to display both the black and white and color versions of some of the same pieces, such as “Train Whistle Blues II” and “Prevalence of Ritual.” While the color versions were often more interesting or easier to look at, being able to compare both versions practically side-by-side highlighted the political implications behind choosing to do artwork in black and white during the 1960s. The cut-and-paste medium gave the sense that Bearden was subtly portraying the limited identities offered to people of color by the mass media.

Moving through the exhibit, the depth of Bearden’s work and the truly personal nature of his subject matter became more apparent as the pieces touched on recurring themes of religion, family, and day-to-day rituals. “The Evening of the Gray Cat” stood out as an example of his ability to capture both the qualities of every day life, and how to engage his viewer’s attention. The gray cat mentioned in the title of the piece is portrayed off to the side of the cavas, forcing your eye to scan the entire painting in search of the elusive pet.

The exhibit ended with “Moonlight Prelude,” one of Bearden’s last works. “Moonlight Prelude” contains one of Bearden’s most commonly used motifs: a train. But this train differs from the others he typically portrayed, preceded by a bright light illuminating the dreamy night sky. It’s a hopeful and harmonious note on which to end for an artist whose style was able to blend the political and the personal, the mass-produced and the individual.

That the exhibit spanned from 1960s to the 1980s does justice to Bearden’s work. It was interesting to see exactly how much he returned to the same themes, the same images, the same motifs. Having all of these recurring subjects in a single exhibit allowed visitors to experience the full depth of this unique artist.

Photo by Romare Bearden, “After Church,” from Wikimedia Commons.

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