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The art of collage.

The art of collage

Looking carefully

Art often speaks to us about our past and our heritage. Particular images, forms and media used in a work of art can evoke a sense of connection to art traditions and cultures of the past. At the same time, a work of art can be a continuation of these art traditions, sustaining them as alive and meaningful in our own time.

Romare Bearden's collages speak to us as images of cultural continuity in the voice of his African-American heritage. They tell of places and events, public and private rituals and activities from his own memories and personal experiences.

In Blue Interior, Morning, Bearden shows us a family engaged in private domestic rituals and interactions. The way they are grouped in the lower left corner of the collage, and the way the elements from which these figures are assembled, intersect and overlap suggest their interrelationships. Through these compositional and stylistic devices, the people are portrayed not as isolated individuals, but as interdependent and interconnected with one another.

The figures in this collage are depicted in a way that also recalls African art traditions. We see them in frontal or profile views, in the proportions of the African sculptural aesthetic in which the head is relatively large in relation to the body (about one-fourth the height of the figure). Hands are also large and prominent. The figures are made up of an interplay of stylized and naturalistic forms that is consistent with African artists' depictions of the human figure. The fragments from which the figures are composed are juxtaposed in an arrangement of multiple rhythms that reflects the polyrhythmic quality of much African art.

Blue Interior, Morning is a photomontage, a type of collage that uses photographs or parts of photographs. By using this medium, Bearden speaks of memory and continuity through a recombination of parts of photographs that originally were part of some other image. The fragments that make up the figures were originally parts of photographs of people who shared the artist's heritage. These collaged elements bring their own sense of history to this image.


While Romare Bearden's primary inspiration and sense of artistic entity came from his African-American heritage, he was also influenced by modern European art. Blue Interior, Morning reflects his interest in Cubism in the way that the figures are composed of fractured, rearranged elements placed on the surface of the collage. Rather than defining a three-dimensional interior setting, the wall behind the figures becomes a decorative pattern that emphasizes the two-dimensionality that is characteristic of Cubism.

Bearden was also interested in modern abstract art. With its flat, brightly colored geometric forms, the background of Blue Interior, Morning is similar to many of the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian. In Mondrian's paintings, the geometric forms line up or have their corners join at one point. This is true of the large rectangles in the right two-thirds of this collage, but behind the figures on the left, they are arranged in rows where the corners are staggered and the forms don't line up exactly.

This syncopated rhythm of geometric forms suggests the artist's love of jazz, and also recalls another African-American art tradition, the art of quilting (see "Faith Ringgold: Artist/Storyteller," SchoolArts, May, 1989). Many African-American strip quilts exhibit this deliberate syncopated joining.

Carolina Blue (above) is also made up of photographs and printed fragments. More stylized in its depiction of the figures, it is similar to Blue Interior Morning in its use of bright colors and multiple rhythms. The image is derived from the artist's own memories of life in the south.

Collage was brought into the realm of modern European art by the Cubists, but it was in Germany, in the years immediately following World War I, that the Dada artists developed the type of photomontage used by Romare Bearden. Hannah Hoch was a German Dada artist who was instrumental in developing photomontage as an art form that addressed the issues of a modern age. Her collages use a combination of photographs and photographic fragments from popular magazines of her time.

Like Hoch, Bearden used form, proportion and visual rhythms to suggest a particular time and place, but while Hoch's collages reflect a sense of the discontinuity that many people felt in Germany after the war, Bearden's speak of continuity of artistic tradition and a sense of his own connection to this tradition.

Key concepts

* Artists can express their cultural identity through styles and images that refer to their particular cultural heritage.

* The subject of a work of art, and the way that the subject is portrayed, can tell us something about an artist's own life experiences and memories.

* Artists are influenced by a variety of artistic styles and concerns, and their art can reflect these influences.

* Photomontage is an effective medium for conveying images of memories and tradition because it brings together fragments of photographs that have their own stories to tell.


Romare Bearden was born in North Carolina in 1914, and grew up in Harlem. His memories of the South, where he often visited relatives, and of Harlem, where he lived and worked for much of his life, are sources of many of his images. There was a vibrant art community in Harlem during the early years of his life, and Bearden was acquainted with many of the artists associated with what came to be known as the "Harlem Renaissance." The Harlem Renaissance encouraged the creation of art based in the social history, cultural heritage and life experiences of African-Americans. Bearden worked closely with a number of artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and throughout his career his art reflected the aims of this movement.

From his youth until his death in 1988 at age 75, Bearden had a rich and varied artistic career. He began as a cartoonist, and was encouraged to paint as well as draw by the German artist George Grosz, with whom he studied at the Art Students League. Like his cartoons, Bearden's paintings addressed the social conditions of his time and their impact on the African-American community.

As well as being inspired by the aims of his fellow artists of the Harlem Renaissance and the artistic traditions of his own heritage, Bearden was interested in the work of European painters. This interest took him to Paris in 1950 to see examples of their work. A few years after he returned from Europe he began to work in collage, the medium for which he is best known. While his collages consistently depict African-American experience, they also incorporate themes common to many different cultures, such as landscape, religious ritual and the family. Many also address various aspects of city life, and he has made a number of works whose theme is jazz.

Bearden's collages are highly acclaimed, and have been included in nearly every major exhibition of African-American art in the past forty years. His work has also been seen in many shows of modern and contemporary American art. In 1971, Bearden had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an honor not granted to many living artists. Despite his own success, Romare Bearden was dedicated to making visible the work of lesser known African-American artists. He was involved in the creation of several galleries and he organized numerous exhibitions. For many younger African-American artists, he has served as an important role model. Today he is recognized as a major artist who has made a significant contribution to twentieth century American art.

Suggested activities


* Romare Bearden's photomontages are images of his memories and experiences, made from fragments of other images. Discuss the use of photographic images to create other images that take on new meaning. Using magazines as sources of photographic images, have students create photomontages that tell of a memorable experience in their own lives.

* Collages can incorporate other materials besides photographs. Show students other examples of collage. Cubist collages, for example, often contain fragments of newspaper, fabric and other materials. Some of Romare Bearden's collages contain pieces of fabric and painted paper. Ask the students to bring to class pieces of old fabric or other materials that no longer serve their original use, and use these in collages.

* Discuss with students the idea of artists working as a group to create images that are meaningful to their community. Ask students to think of events or shared activities that bring them together as part of a group, such as festivals, school activities or memorable community events. Using large pieces of paper or tagboard for a backing, have students work in groups to make collages that show their shared experience.


* In the European-American art tradition, collage has been recognized as an art form only in the twentieth century, but the bringing together of multiple materials in a work of art has a long traditions can be seen as antecedents to modern collage. Have students research the history of collage, exploring the ways in which many cultures throughout the world have incorporated a variety of materials in their art, and ways that these art traditions may have influenced modern artists.

* Show students other examples of collage and photomontage, and suggest that they note the variety of materials used. Discuss the use of different materials and media to achieve various effects of line, form, color and texture that could not be achieved using only a single medium such as paint. Also consider the social and cultural meanings that the materials used in many collages might carry; these give multiple layers of meaning to an artist's work. Old materials, such as fabric, carry their own history of past use, and of tastes and styles in their patterns and colors. The fragments of images in photomontages often give clues to an artist's feelings about social issues. Have students make collages about issues or experiences that are important to them, using materials that enhance the meanings of their images.

* Like many artists working in photomontage, Romare Bearden used photographic images from contemporary sources such as popular magazines to make images of his own experience. Have students bring in magazines or other printed matter that contains images they feel are relevant to their own lives. Students can work together in small groups to cut these materials into fragments. Using Bearden's collages as examples, encourage students to work with fragments of images that are smaller than the object or body part that they represent. Have students work individually or in groups to recombine these fragments into images that suggest the original meaning of the photographs from which they were made and at the same time speak of some aspect of the student's own life experiences.

PHOTO : Romare Bearden, Carolina Blue, 1969. Collage on panel, 40" X 30" (102 cm X 76 cm). Courtesy the ACA Galleries, New York.

PHOTO : Photograph of Romare Bearden.


Lewis, Samella. Art: African American.

New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,

1978. Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of

Ritual. Exhibition Catalogue, The

Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1971. Washington, M. Bunch. The Art of

Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of

Ritual. New York: Harry N. Abrams,

Inc., 1973.

Melanie Herzog is an art history graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:artist Romare Bearden
Author:Herzog, Melanie
Publication:School Arts
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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