Destabilizing speculation

An Artist’s Account with the South – The Brooklyn Rail

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
Romare Bearden in the Land of His Imagination: An Artist’s Account with the South
(University of North Carolina Press, 2022)

American historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore offers a biography of artist Romare Bearden that attempts to essentialize the role of memory in understanding his art and his life. Instead of relying solely on empirical evidence, she foregrounds memory – Bearden’s and her own – to craft a biographical account that spans four generations of the Bearden family. Published after several recent texts on Bearden, including the 2018 biography of Mary Schmidt Campbell An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden, Gilmore claims to intervene by exploring the contradictions between the historical record and Bearden’s own memories of his life, which “create a fruitful tension between the way historical ‘fact’ and his own lived experiences coincide and collide”. The book also references Bearden’s works as a type of record that Gilmore then “extracts” for valuable historical and cultural information. Destabilizing traditional historical authority, Gilmore leaves room for productive speculation. While a promising transdisciplinary undertaking, Gilmore’s biography fails to complicate or nuance what is widely known about Bearden’s life.

Romare Bearden in the homeland of his imagination has a chronological narrative that is occasionally interrupted by a visual analysis of some of Bearden’s most famous works. It begins with Bearden’s great-grandparents’ journey from slavery to a prosperous life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the artist was born. As a historian of the American South, Gilmore is well placed to offer historical analysis of Bearden’s life in a broader American context, expanding on work previously done by art historians, curators and Bearden himself. But instead, Gilmore adds only a rudimentary account of the family’s history and some examples of their self-fashioning. For example, Bearden’s mother intentionally changed the spelling of her name from Bessie to the more elegant Bessye after moving to Harlem. Her neglect to provide historical context on topics such as Reconstruction-era failures presents a missed opportunity to offer audiences the “why” and “how” for much of what she tells. . Although Gilmore acknowledges the often misguided perception of Bearden as white, she evades the politics of colorism and its key role in Bearden’s geographic, philosophical, and artistic mobility. This has the doubly negative effect of downplaying the paucity of Bearden’s family history and their unique position to cross cities, class lines and political affiliations at the turn of the 20th century.

Gilmore intends to use Bearden’s art “as an archive in three ways: to illuminate his family’s and his own experiences, to explore his own dark imagination, and to carry the narrative thread of his artistic practice to the over the decades”. She juxtaposes the artworks with moments in Bearden’s history to help interpret key factors of the past and key details of the artworks themselves. For example, she uses Family (1986) to demonstrate his struggle against his family’s self-help efforts. Bearden’s mother, Bessye, and Bearden himself, changed the year of his birth at different times in his life, which reportedly impacted how he recalled childhood memories. Family, speculates Gilmore, depicts a “tangled” memory of baby Bearden in the arms of his great-grandmother, when in reality he would have been around nine years old during such a visit. In cases like this, Gilmore’s use of the terms “memory” and “fantasy” are almost interchangeable, which at times appeals to the exceptional in Bearden’s artistic practice, but at others seems to undermine his authority in the narration of his own past. The lines between his intentional artistic choices and the fidelity of his spirit are often blurred. Is Bearden’s memory “entangled” or is that how he wanted to remember? Did he forget his age or is it the baby figure he wanted us to see?

Gilmore’s visual interpretations of Bearden’s work present the most exciting space for speculation and transdisciplinary thought, but ultimately reveal the author’s own imaginative limits. During the interpretation of Bearden Conjunction (1979), a collage that depicts three black men in conversation, Gilmore speculates whether the central figure is enslaved: “The middle figure stands between, but apart from, the bonding men. Maybe he is a slave. His “shirt” is the color of the background, which makes him exposed. A white line beheads him. His hand makes a futile gesture. His pants could be slave pants. A seemingly innocuous read, one can miss Gilmore making the figure a slave to his own will. The book is titled Conjunction and the title, as well as the intimate proximity of the bodies represented, evoke fraternity. To look at an image made in 1979 of three black men shaking hands and, without any substantial cultural, historical or visual reasoning, to speculate that a character is enslaved, is beyond stereotyping. Without providing reference to images or studies that indicate the figure’s pants mirror those worn by slaves, she merely assumes the benefit of her own analysis. The composition style of the pasted image, strongly influenced by cubism, depicts the man wearing a white collared shirt. To read a shirt collar as a “decapitation” is violent, and to superimpose this reading on the posthumous image is dangerous. It is this willful ignorance that produces the racialized stereotypes that negatively impact how we collectively see and interpret the work of black artists.

More importantly, the subtitle of the book is An Artist’s Account with the South, yet the South is little considered geographically, historically, or even as a place often romanticized or considered backward in the American imagination. Gilmore presents little distinction between North and South beyond the historical binaries of slavery and freedom, undermining the significance of the monograph’s intervention. The central contradiction Gilmore exposes is Bearden’s label as a “Southern artist”, which she problematizes by demonstrating how the South was not a place he lived or could experience for long. . Once Bearden left the South as a small child, he rarely returned. Instead, “he looked south for inspiration. Images of Charlotte with the Kennedys, Greensboro with Anna Bearden, and Lawrenceville summers with Catie Bearden Cummings began to surface,” she explains. “Most often, the stories mixed flashes of memory and imagination. Growing richer and richer, they created their own world in the mind of Bearden, his “homeland” of imagination. Bearden’s Imaginary South is where characters such as the Conjure Woman, the Pepper Jelly Lady, and Maudell Sleet transcend flesh and bone to become Southern iconography.

Gilmore relates that Bearden often fabricated or encouraged myths of a Southern upbringing, while diminishing the extent to which he had been formally trained as an artist. Neglecting to consider Bearden’s motives, especially after achieving commercial success, leaves important questions unaddressed. Why would Bearden want to be considered a Southern artist? How does his turn towards figuration, collage and the South compare to the trajectory of his contemporaries? To what extent was Bearden influenced by art market demands for the art of black artists? Arguably, Gilmore might reflect Bearden’s own lack of critical engagement with the South beyond memory and imagination, but in doing so she treats the region as inconsequential. Without an exploration of what it meant to be a Southern artist, or a critical engagement with what it meant to be Southern during Bearden’s lifetime, there is no accountability.