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2011-12 Arts Preview: Charlotte celebrates Romare Bearden

"Magic Garden" is a 1978 collage on board by Romare Bearden. Paul Mutino © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
"Magic Garden" is a 1978 collage on board by Romare Bearden. Paul Mutino © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

He was born 100 years ago this week in Charlotte and became one of the most renowned African-American artists of the 20th century. Now, Charlotte is about to celebrate the life and works of Romare Bearden as never before.

Music, exhibitions and a TV special will focus on Bearden and the impact of his works. Among the events:

Three exhibitions on Bearden and his influence at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

A major retrospective at Mint Museum Uptown, "Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections," with works from every stage of Bearden's career, examining how the South - and his memories of Charlotte - served as a source of his inspiration. It will contain 99 works. (There were going to be 100, of course, but one scheduled to be on loan was sold.)

A Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert paired with Bearden's images ranging from Harlem to Southern life.

Growth as an artist

Bearden was born Sept. 2, 1911, in his great-grandfather's house at Second and Graham streets. His parents moved north when he was 4, part of the great black migration of the early to mid-20thcentury.

Bearden, who visited his Charlotte relatives through his teens, grew up in Pittsburgh and New York, where he lived during the Harlem Renaissance, an upsurge in black art, literature and music in the 1920s and '30s.

His mother, Bessye Johnson Bearden, a Goldsboro native, was a writer for black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and later a political figure in Harlem.

Bearden worked for 30 years as a social worker in New York, and made art in his spare time. In the 1950s, he moved to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne.

His early works were drawn from his experiences in the South, painted in vivid tempera and recalling agrarian life and community bonds. His iconic collage technique emerged in the 1960s and his work moved from literal images to a surrealistic blend.

As the civil rights struggle of the 1960s intensified, Bearden's work took on a social conscience exemplified by such works as "Carolina Reunion" (1975), illustrating the black diaspora of the 20th century as a search for opportunity.

He once said his ambition was to "paint the life of my people as I know it - as passionately as Brueghel painted the life of the Flemish people."

Bearden returned to Charlotte in the 1970s after a 50-year absence and found the city a vastly changed place. Urban renewal had erased the neighborhoods of his youth, but not his memories.

"I didn't need to go back," Bearden said, "because I never left."

He died at age 76 in March 1988 in New York; he had bone cancer.

Creating collages

Among the events for the Bearden centennial will be a special by Channel 3 reporter Steve Crump, "Bearden at 100" at 8 p.m. Sept. 7 on WTVI (Channel 42).

By adding Frank Stewart's photographs of Bearden to exhibitions of his works, the Gantt aims to bring a more three-dimensional profile of the artist, said Michael Harris, the curator. Bearden influenced many contemporaries and opened the doors to some African-American artists because of his mainstream success, he said.

"He was one of the few artists of the 20th century to create a form, like Alexander Calder's mobiles, that is directly connected to him," Harris said. "When you think about collage you think about Bearden."

Southern influence

At the Mint, Bearden's exhibition is the first to examine the Southern influence in his works, said Carla Hanzal, curator of contemporary art. "It's a tightly focused exhibit for this region, to bring awareness of Bearden to Charlotte."

As part of the exhibition, a 144-page catalog is being published with contributions by Mary Lee Corlett, Jae Emerling, Glenda Gilmore and Leslie King-Hammond.

Hanzal said it is one of the largest and most ambitious exhibitions the museum has hosted, though it has been exhibiting Beardens for 30 years, beginning with a 1980 retrospective.

"It's huge in terms of the importance of celebrating Romare Bearden," Hanzal said. "Many people in Charlotte know about him. There's still quite a few people who maybe don't."

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