Romare Bearden’s autobiographical “Profile” series is reunited at the High Museum in Atlanta.
In 1977, Romare Bearden (1911–88) allowed himself to be interviewed at length by the writer Calvin Tomkins for a profile in The New Yorker. The process of recollecting his life in detail gave Bearden the idea of doing something had hadn’t thought of doing before—making an autobiographical work of art, telling something of his own story in pictures. So from 1978–81, he occupied himself with the “Profile” project, a series of works using his signature collage technique that chronicle his youth and early adulthood in the 1920s and 1930s.
Currently, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta is presenting “Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series,” an exhibition that brings together 30 works from the group (on view through January 5, 2020). Curated by Stephanie Heydt, the High’s Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art, and Bearden scholar Robert G. O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, the show was inspired by the High’s acquisition in 2014 of Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Artist with Painting & Model (1981). It is not only the culminating work of the series, but it’s also one of the very few known self-portraits in Bearden’s oeuvre.
The paradox of the “Profile” series is that is creates a portrait of the artist without—except for that one collage—depicting the artist directly. Instead, Bearden depicted his life through the scenes that surrounded him and the people who were important to him. This autobiography is made of memories enshrined in images, which of course is how we represent our own lives to ourselves. In a sense, “Profile” is as private as the New Yorker profile is public. The title of the High’s exhibition is taken from that of Tomkins’ article, and the phrase “something over something else” was used by Bearden to refer to his multimedia technique of composition, placing collage elements—especially photographic and other images clipped from magazines—and layers of paint, drawing, paper, and fabric on top of each other.
The exhibition arranges the works in their original chronological order and pairs them with short poetic texts written for them by Bearden in collaboration with his friend, the writer and jazz expert Albert Murray. These statements, which are evocative rather than descriptive, were hand-written on the gallery walls when the series was shown in the early 1980s; in the High’s installation, the original scripts are incorporated into the wall texts accompanying each work.
“We are very excited to reassemble Bearden’s original ‘Profile’ project—and to experience these works along with their captions, presented in the original sequence,” says Heydt. “Bearden was a wonderful storyteller, and ‘Profile’ shows Bearden at his best, using words and images to evoke deeply personal memories. But Bearden also invites us all to find something to relate to along the way. There is a poetry in the arrangement of the exhibition that feels unique for Bearden’s work and this show, which assembles nearly two-thirds of the original group and may be the only opportunity to see those works together again.”
Bearden’s life story, in and of itself, is certainly worth the telling. He achieved distinction in several ways—as a visual artist, a jazz songwriter (notably as lyricist for the Billy Eckstine classic Sea Breeze), a writer about art, a social worker, and even, briefly, a baseball player. These achievements all stem, in one way or another, from his origins in the African American community of Charlotte, N.C., and his immersion in the cultural phenomenon that was Harlem in the 1930s. Part I of “Profiles” is dedicated to the artist’s youth in Charlotte and then in Pittsburgh, where his family moved to escape the racism of the South before heading to New York in search of wider cultural horizons.
One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene (1978). The collage on board shows a group of mourners in a graveyard in a kaleidoscopic, somewhat Surreal style, with faces emphasized more than bodies, surrounded by trees, flowers, and birds against a twilight sky. There is a sense of resurrection here, of life continuing after death, as well as of the closeness of the community. The funeral depicted is that of one of Bearden’s closest friends, a boy named Eugene who died at the age of 12. It was Eugene who introduced Bearden to art, and the two boys would spend hours drawing together. The text Bearden and Murray wrote for this is, “The sporting people were allowed to come but they had to stand on the far right.” Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Johnny Hudgins Comes On (1981), also reflects on Bearden’s artistic origins. Hudgins, a vaudeville comedian, is shown occupying center stage amid brightly colored lights, flanked by a female singer on the left and a jazz band, enclosed within a tight frame suggesting a marquee or a pit, at the lower right. The accompanying text here is particularly eloquent: “He was my favorite of all the comedians. What Johnny Hudgins could do through mime on an empty stage helped show me how worlds were created on an empty canvas.”
Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Pittsburgh Memories, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket (1978) evokes memories of Bearden’s grandmother’s boarding house. The “hand” in “mill hand” is taken literally; the man’s hand is huge, larger than life, a symbol of strength and resilience, as it reaches out for the lunch bucket. The text reads, “The mills worked 24 hours a day with three 8-hour shifts.” The multimedia collage inspired the playwright August Wilson in his writing of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; the two main characters in the play were inspired by another work in the series, Profile/Part I, The Twenties, Mecklenburg County, Miss Bertha & Mr. Seth (1978).
One interesting thing about Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Artist with Painting & Model, Bearden’s self-portrait in his Harlem studio, is that the face of the artist is very indistinct, just lightly penciled in over a silhouette of yellowish color. It’s as if even in a self-portrait, Bearden didn’t want to call too much attention to himself. “Profile,” communitarian in spirit, is really the most self-effacing of autobiographies.
By John Dorfman