Looking Past the Hardscrabble Life

African-American artist Romare Bearden depicts lives in transit out of the South

Romare Bearden said he wanted ''to paint the life of my people as I know it -- passionately and dispassionately as Brueghel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day.''

In Bearden's signature collages, as well as the more than 100 prints on display at the Brooklyn Museum through July 9, the artist created an epic vision of African-American life that is both quotidian and mythic.

''I paint what people did when I was a little boy, like the way they got up in the morning,'' said Bearden, who lived from 1912 to 1988. ''But I would like it to have more.''

The ''more'' elevates commonplace scenes of the South, like a family around the table, to something that resembles a collective heritage. His prints of trains, for example, allude to the actual trains that roared past his great-grandmother's farm in North Carolina but also symbolize escape from the hardscrabble sharecropper's life and Jim Crow laws of the South.

Nine of a series of prints called ''Twelve Trains'' done in 1974 are in the exhibition, ''A Graphic Odyssey: Romare Bearden as Printmaker.'' Each print has different tints and a different name, from the yellow light of ''Mid-Morning Local'' to the dark, shrouded faces in ''Midnight Special.'' By individualizing each train according to the hour it passed by, Bearden conveys the impression of a round-the-clock migration north and the stony faces of those left behind.

Not surprisingly, the etchings, lithographs, and silkscreens in this show -- the first retrospective of Bearden's prints -- have a collage-like sensibility. ''Falling Star'' (1979) combines nested rectangles representing walls, door, and windows in an almost Mondrian geometric grid with juicy colors in blocks and batik-like patterns.

Around the mid-1960s during the Civil Rights upheaval, Bearden discovered collage as his true medium. In others' hands, collage can look like a jumble of fragments, due to the disparate scale and disjointed perspective of its elements. Bearden, however, in his collages as in the prints on display, unified the diverse shapes and colors. Although derived from ephemeral sources, the scraps and anonymous faces in his works cohabit harmoniously and timelessly.

His jazz series best illustrates the method of resolving dissonance into an activated composition. ''Jazz II'' (1980) presents an ensemble of musicians playing saxophone, piano, trumpet, and drums. Pink lines shoot across the composition, bisecting the image into parallel solo riffs.

Bearden was profoundly influenced by the innovative energy of jazz, which poured out of clubs during the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, he wrote musical compositions for Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, and Dizzy Gillespie. His friends were Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Earl Hines. (And August Wilson's play, ''The Piano Lesson,'' was directly inspired by a Bearden collage.)

Adapting the jazz aesthetic to imagemaking, Bearden compared negative, or blank, space on a canvas to intervals of silence between the notes that invite the listener's imagination to participate in a musical composition. To unify his patchwork of graphic elements, he repeated motifs, just like recurring chords or the call-and-response pattern of the blues. In ''Conjunction'' (1979), Bearden fused two separate figures into one whole visual statement by repeating vertical lines on the shirts of two men and using a limited palette of colors like green, orange, and yellow.

Quiltmaking, jazz and blues, Cubism, and African art all influenced Bearden's style. ''I think the artist has to be something like a whale,'' he said, ''swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he needs.''

He also looked to classical art for models. Many of the prints deal with mythological or Biblical subjects. While the jazz images have a kinetic quality reflected in their titles (''Stomp Time,'' ''Bopping at Birdland''), his renditions of ''The Iliad'' and ''The Odyssey'' are static as a Greek frieze, as in the flat, columnar forms of ''Processional'' (1983). Whether making art out of the African-American experience or from the whole history of Western culture, Bearden pieced the parts together into a glowing mosaic of vibrant color.

To play the blues, a musician makes a beautiful song out of a sorrowful event. ''[That] is why I've gone back to the South and to jazz,'' Bearden once said. ''Even though you go through these terrible experiences, you come out feeling good. That's what the blues say, and that's what I believe -- life will prevail.''

The Romare Bearden exhibition will travel to numerous sites during the next two years, including: Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Va. (Aug. 18 to Oct. 9); Spirit Square Center for the Arts and Education in Charlotte, N. C. (Nov. 3 to Jan 6, 1996); Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Feb. 3 to April 7, 1996).

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