By Walter Rutledge
On September 28, 2011 the United States Postal Service will honor renowned African American artist Romare Bearden with four stamps bearing images of his work. The issuing of the commemorative stamps coincides with the 100th anniversary of Bearden’s birth (September 2, 1911). United States Postal Service, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Romare Bearden Foundation the will mark the occasion with a First Day of Issue Ceremony on the September 28 at 11am in The Langston Hughes Auditorium, Schomburg Center located at 515 Malcolm X Blvd. Seating is limited and you should RSVP no later than September 23, 2011 by calling 866-268-3243.
This is a significant moment because so few visual artists have received such an honor from the United States Postal Service. It is even more auspicious, because not one but four images of Bearden’s works have been reproduced as stamps. The works selected are Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman (1964), Conjunction (1971), Odysseus: Poseidon, The Sea God—Enemy of Odysseus (1977), and Falling Star (1979). Each work represents Bearden’s profound understanding of his heritage, which allowed him to infuse these images with a larger and more universal human vision.
Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman is one of a series of important collages from 1964. It was during this period Bearden was a founding member of Spiral. A group of artists, which included Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff and Bearden, that decided to come together to discuss the role of the Black artist in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Initially the artists met at Bearden’s Canal Street Loft, but eventually they rented studio space at 147 Christopher Street to create new works.
Bearden suggested the artists create a collaborative work using collage as the medium. The idea was not well received and Bearden who had collected various newspaper and magazine clippings for the collage worked alone. Arne Eckstrom, his art dealer at the time was visiting Bearden’s loft and happened to see a series of collages. He decided this would be Bearden’s next gallery show. The 1964 exhibition of collage works entitled Projections was a success; it later credited Bearden with revitalizing the collage style.
The Conjur Woman is a mysterious black woman who possesses power, dignity and a strong spiritual connection to African Diaspora. This figure became a reoccurring theme in Bearden’s work. Presently the Studio Museum in Harlem has an exhibit of works from the Spiral group (from July 14- October 23) included is another version of Conjur Woman also created in 1964.
Bearden was born in Charlotte (Mecklenburg County) North Carolina. The rise of Jim Crow Laws and the often-violent enforcement of the restrictive policies lead his parents to move to New York City in 1914. Young Romare would return to Charlotte during the summers, and this left a lasting impression on the artist.
Conjunction conveys the relaxed and welcoming interaction of county folks. The use of patterns in the clothing honors the tradition of quilt making, a folk art form prevalent in southern culture. This large collage is constructed with crayon, charcoal and a variety of fabrics on canvas.
The communicative and storytelling elements of literature held a special place in his life. In the Canal Street loft Bearden had an extensive library ranging from art, to politics, to classical literature. He often used themes from literary sources in his works. In Odysseus: Poseidon The Sea God—Enemy of Odysseus Bearden depicts Poseidon the archenemy of Odysseus from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.
The figure of Poseidon with his head in profile, full frontal torso, and the long shafted spear are iconic images from pre-fifth centuries B.C. Greek art. This motif is set against the almost West African mask-like face and curved patterns of the water. The overall effect captures the mythic qualities while injecting multicultural crosscurrents that suggest a deeper and more universal narrative.
Falling Star demonstrates Bearden keen sense as visual storyteller. This work uses a device that has become synonymous with the artist, that Bearden called Interiors. He had the ability to convey pastoral southern environments from his youth, and to simultaneously depict the intimate personal interactions inside a dwelling. Or to place us on the busy, and oft-times congested city streets; and then take us into a window revealing the pathos of individuals who reside there.
In Falling Star Bearden reverses the process by taking us from the intimacy of a dwelling to the excitement happening outside her bedroom window. He does this by creating a sight line/ line of visual perceptive, which masterfully directs our eye from the central figure through a second room and out of the window. Beyond his technical prowess the metaphoric subject of the falling star touches the human condition on many levels.
This is not the first time a Bearden image has appeared on a United States Postal Stamp. In 2005 a stamp collection entitled To Form A More Perfect Union, which commemorated the Civil Right Movement featured Bearden’s image The Lamp (1984). The Lamp represents the landmark school desegregation case Brown vs. The Board of Education.
Bearden received many honors throughout his life including the National Medal of Arts, presented him by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. His untimely death in 1988 from cancer at age 76 did not diminish his public acclaim or admiration for his work. In 2004 Bearden became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. The exhibition toured the United States, visiting four other galleries over a two-year span. The tour including a six-month exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum, which became part of a year-long city wide Bearden celebration spearheaded by The Romare Bearden Foundation.
The Romare Bearden Foundation was established in 1990. Its mission is to perpetuate and preserve the art and legacy of this great American artist. Activities honoring the centennial of Bearden’s birth have been scheduled nationwide. One recent event was the groundbreaking ceremony of the Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Foundation is located in Harlem at the Theresa Towers at 2090 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. For more information about Romare Bearden, the centennial events and The Romare Bearden Foundation visit http://www.beardencentennial.org
In Photo: Romare Bearden
Images 1) Four Bearden Stamps 2) The Conjur Woman 3) Conjunction 4) Odysseus: Poseidon The Sea God—Enemy of Odysseus 5) Falling Star 6) The Lamp 7) Romare Bearden Park
Video by Kryoutarts