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Romare Bearden
(Charlotte, North Carolina, 1911 - 1988)

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One of the United States’ most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Romare Bearden is renowned for his collages of urban life and jazz culture that combine a modernist flair for design with a strong social conscience. He strove to affirm the everyday experiences of African Americans, both through his own example as an artist of color and by the work he created, positing the black experience as a universal one. A born storyteller, Bearden illustrated scenes from great literary works such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Bible, envisioning the familiar stories with a cast of black characters. He addressed tales of arduous voyage, adventure, suffering, and transcendence—timeless themes of human redemption that continue to resonate with viewers. Bearden’s inherent sense of humanism and his commitment to bettering the world he lived in was reflected by his chosen profession—social work—as well as by the content of the vibrant, varied artwork he created throughout his long and fruitful career.

Born in 1911 to a middle-class family in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden came of age at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. His parent’s social circle included writers, musicians, and intellectuals, including Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and W.E.B. Dubois. Bearden began his studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, transferred to Boston University from 1930 to 1932, then enrolled at New York University in the School of Education’s art department, earning his degree in education in 1935. He took two classes at the Art Students League with German Expressionist artist George Grosz, who had fled his native country after Hitler came to power. In 1942, Bearden entered the army and served for three years, and at the same time he began exhibiting his work in galleries. By the mid-1940s, important museums and private collectors began to pay attention to and to collect Bearden’s work. In the early 1960s, after spending time in Paris, Bearden began using collage, possibly inspired by Matisse’s cut-outs. By the end of the decade he was working with master printers Robert Blackburn, Kathy Caraccio, Mohammad O. Khalil, and Joseph Kleineman, learning and experimenting with print techniques that later led him to create his well known Odyssey collages.

Circe into Swine is the artist’s re-creation of an earlier collage, Circe Turns a Companion of Odysseus into a Swine from the Odysseus Series. This scene is taken from Book X of Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus and his men come upon the island of Aeaea. Odysseus sent half his men to find Circe, the inhabitant of the island, who proceeded to ply the men with food that she had poisoned, transforming them into swine. Bearden presented the fateful moment when one of Odysseus’s men had eaten the poisoned food but had yet to be transformed. He used bright primary and secondary colors to illustrate the lush island of Aeaea, Circe’s palace, and the two characters. Bearden presents the characters with dark skin, connecting the literary scene to African Americans and thus to himself. He simplified the scene from the Odyssey and powerfully illustrated the definitive moment in one man’s life, where he is confronted with the choices he has made and must endure their consequences.

Novelist and social critic Ralph Ellison beautifully summed up the artist’s contribution when he wrote that Bearden “is an artist whose social consciousness is no less intense than his dedication to art; his example is of utmost importance for all who are concerned with grasping something of the complex interrelations between race, culture, and the individual artist as they exist in the United States.”1 Bearden’s refreshing take on familiar literary works gives these works new life, and enables us to see them as universal tales of journey and transformation. —B.K.

1. Ruth Fine, The Art of Romare Bearden (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2003), 201. (SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

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