Romare Bearden in profile: African-American soul, Caribbean love

POSTED: 03/17/14 6:42 PM

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – African-American artist and writer Romare Bearden is no longer with us. He died in 1988 after a battle with bone cancer, but not before receiving the prestigious National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1987 for his outstanding contribution to the Arts over his lifetime. It is the highest such honor that can be bestowed on an American in the Arts. 

Bearden’s rich artistic legacy lives on, however, and it’s a legacy inextricably tied to St. Martin and a wider Black identity. Bearden’s wife, Nanette Rohan, who was a dancer in the US at the time they met, was from French Quarter and the couple made their second home here, on the island. He no doubt influenced and inspired local artists with his work and ideas.

Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and later graduated from New York University (NYU) with a degree in art and philosophy in the 1930s. When war broke out in Europe, Bearden enlisted and became a soldier in the European theatre of the Second World War. In 1950, under the G I Bill he was later able to further study philosophy in Paris at the Sorbonne. The trauma of experiencing the brutalities of war first hand heavily influenced Bearden’s sensibilities, leading him to see the war as a loss of humanity.

As for his work, he is primarily known for his collages – works of art made up of different materials and pieces, often from glossy magazines, which were new at the time – depicting themes of the Black American South and of the lush scenery of island life. During his time in Europe he was influenced by Pablo Picasso’s cubism style, and ventured into abstract painting, but he struggled internally with the universalism of abstract painting versus the real, concrete experiences of being Black, especially during the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1960s.

His art evolved as a result. But Bearden rejected limitations on what was considered Black art; that such art must simply represent what already existed. He felt this would burden the artist, and limit genuine artistic expression.  Writer Ruth Fine described Bearden as “a well-read man whose friends were other artists, writers, poets and jazz musicians, Bearden mined their worlds as well as his own for topics to explore. He took his imagery from both the everyday rituals of African American rural life in the south and urban life in the north, melding those American experiences with his personal experiences and with the themes of classical literature, religion, myth, music and daily human ritual.”

But he also had a lot of admiration for the Dutch masters, like Rembrand, Vermeer, and De Hooch owing to his classic education in art history and philosophy. Traditional African masks also played an important influence on his work.

Bearden was a prolific writer, too, and often chronicled African-American and Caribbean art and artists, including Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. He also wrote a children’s book called Lil Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story, published posthumously.

Up until the very end of his prolific and productive life, Bearden and his wife maintained a home in St. Martin, which will always remain a part of his creative legacy.

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