Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination

Univ. of North Carolina. Apr. 2022. 176p. ISBN 9781469667867. $40. FINE ARTS
“I never left Charlotte [NC], except physically,” Black artist Romare Bearden (1911–88) says in Gilmore’s (emerita, history, Yale Univ.) adept reappraisal of Bearden’s life and art. Bearden was a child in 1915 when his family fled racially charged Charlotte in the Jim Crow South for Harlem and Pittsburgh, after his Black father was falsely accused of kidnapping light-skinned Romare outside a store. Gilmore thoroughly researches Bearden’s family history (his great-grandparents were enslaved by Woodrow Wilson’s father, while his mother became a civic leader in Harlem). Gilmore also surveys the stages of his artistic career: from editorial cartooning, to social realist painting as a member of the Harlem Artists Guild in the 1930s and 1940s, to works influenced by Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. But it was Bearden’s cut-paper collages celebrating the Black American experience—often culled from his scant memories of rural life in the South and urban life in the North (most notably, The Block)—that shot him to fame. Gilmore also addresses Bearden’s social activism and life as a Black artist working in the 20th century.
VERDICT Like Bearden’s art, Gilmore’s biography pulses with energy and will resonate with readers of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
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