Collage is a medium that encourages the freedom to improvise. Many great artists incorporated collage into their efforts. Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Willem de Kooning, Kurt Schwitters and Romare Bearden to name a few.
Although Cezanne did not use collage in his painting, it was an exhibition of Cezanne’s work at the Salon d’Automne in 1907 which would influence the Cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Out of Cubism, came Dadaism or anti-art ( a product of World War l ). The Dadaists proclaimed that all received moral, political and aesthetic beliefs had been destroyed by war. They were trying to make sense of devastation by using found materials to create messages in collage. Then there was Kurt Schwitters who developed the art form ‘Merz’ with the intention to out-dada the Dadaists; “In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out the fragments: and this is Merz. “ Merz was an attempt to make coherent aesthetic sense of the world around, using fragments of bus tickets, old wire, pieces of news print, periodicals, stamps, photographs, cigar labels and wrappers. In an attempt to sort through the chaos, Schwitters would attempt to physically unite all the elements that he encountered. The collages he created from street junk were as carefully formulated as the paintings of Rembrandt, whose work he greatly admired.
It was March of 05’ and my weary bones managed to find their way to The High Museum. The inventive collage works of Romare Bearden were boldly waiting. Mr. Bearden combined collage, pencil and paint with his knowledge of Western Art, Cubism, Dadaism, African Art, Japanese prints and Byzantine mosaics to capture time; a glimpse of his time. Bearden would absorb the life around him and in the studio juxtapose the environment with fragments of wallpaper, posters, magazine cuttings, and Photostats . With his exceptional use of space, his collage could hold a narrative of contradictions and struggle and yet simply be eloquent.
With the intent to become a doctor, Bearden instead received a degree in Science. He participated as a political cartoonist for the college magazine and went on to become a social worker by day and art student by night with George Grosz ( a Dadaist from Germany). The politically charged images of Dadaism would stay with Bearden and later inspire his greatest works. His obsession with art had begun and he went on to study with a Chinese calligrapher, whom he credits with introducing him to new ideas about space and composition. He attended the Art students league in New York and later the Sorbonne in Paris where he studied Philosophy and French. He spent a lot of time with the study of old European Masters and was greatly inspired by the modernist, Picasso, Matisse and Gris. Bearden was instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance as a member of the ‘306 group’ ( A forum for the artistic exchange between painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and writers.)
Success did come for Bearden. He obtained a studio above the Apollo theatre in Harlem and built a studio in his wife’s homeland of the Caribbean on the island of St. Martin. There, he found a new subject; the lush landscape of woven sunlight.
Bearden had a passion for art of all periods and was also an accomplished writer, designer, musician, muralist and literary scholar. He was particularly fond of performing arts and designed costumes and sets for Alvin Ailey. He was a celebrated humanist, as demonstrated in his lifelong support of young, emerging artists. In 1987 President Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Arts (The highest award of recognition in the arts). Bearden died from bone cancer a year later at the age of 77.
“Practically all the great artists have accepted the influence of others. But the difference lies in the fact that the artist with vision sees his material, chooses, changes and by integrating what he has learned with his own experience finally molds something distinctly personal.” R. Bearden