The figure of the dove in Romare Bearden’s collage perches unobtrusively on a ledge above a busy Harlem, New York, street scene. The artist created the essence of a vibrant, ever
changing neighborhood by gluing cut-up photographs, clippings from newspapers and magazines, and colored paper to a piece of cardboard in such a way that the viewer’s eye, like an inhabitant of the street itself, is constantly on the move, jumping from light areas to dark areas and from pattern to pattern. We glimpse people with large heads and hands and
small feet walking, sitting, smoking, and peering from open doors and windows; we eye cats roaming—perhaps looking for a meal—and spy body parts that emerge mysteriously from
undefined openings in the buildings. Amid all this activity it is hard to imagine any sense of order, but Bearden carefully composed The Dove so that, beginning with the white cat at
bottom left, we travel into and around the street, always noticing something different.
Romare Bearden was born around 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and migrated with his family to Harlem in 1914, where his writer-mother hosted the leaders of the African American artistic and intellectual mainstream at their home. Although Bearden graduated from New York University with a degree in education and made his living as a New York
social worker until he was in his mid-fifties, painting was his chosen profession. In 1944, he had his first solo show at a major Washington, D.C., gallery. By the late 1950s, Bearden was a well-known artist working in an abstract style that incorporated influences from the great masters in the history of art as well as his own memories of African American life in
North Carolina, Harlem, and Pittsburgh (where his grandparents lived). Between 1963 and 1964, however, Bearden took an artistic step that would alter the direction of his work and
bring him international attention.
The Dove collage was among twenty-one works Bearden made during his involvement with Spiral, an organization of fifteen African American artists formed in July 1963, one month before the historic march on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. The optimistic explanation of the spiral— “because, from a starting point, it moves outward, embracing all directions, yet constantly upward”—symbolized the attitude
of the group, which undertook to answer the question “What is black art?” and to investigate the role of the black artist in a climate of segregation. Bearden brought in a few collages and suggested (unsuccessfully) that the group collaborate on a project. In the early 1960s, artists, particularly painters, were reinventing collage (from the French term “to glue”), a technique that had been popular in Europe in the early twentieth
century. It is a medium that encourages the freedom to improvise, and Bearden, who loved and composed jazz, incorporated the rhythms and syncopations of that musical style into his collages. Bearden may also have had in mind the tradition of African American patchwork quilt-making. Although he insisted that his works had no political agenda, the Spiral inspired collages and the subsequent series of large black and-white photostats (copier-like images that he named “Projections”) made from them were groundbreaking. Bearden was one of the first artists to depict black popular culture from an African American point of view, and he addressed a wide range of subjects based on his rural and urban experience of black life. Moreover, he did so in a manner that broke up and
rearranged mass-produced images in an almost abstract way, creating new relationships and interpretations. On viewing the “Projections,” one critic pointed out that “through the use of optical shifts and arrangements similar to a jigsaw puzzle, [the artworks] cover more ground…than a group of photographs presented in a conventional fashion.” Although The Dove was given its title after it was made, it is not difficult to attach a meaning such as hope or peace to the serene bird that appears in the center of urban life, or to see a predatory
connection in the white prowling cat, which the bird appears to be watching.
The Dove and the twenty other collages done by Bearden opened up a new direction in his art. He continued to explore the medium of collage until his death, creating works that are,
in the words of writer Ralph Ellison, “visual poetry.”
April 17, 2012 PowerPoint: Romare Bearden the Dove
Have a great week! -Mrs. S
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” I Tim. 4:12 NIV