From Chaos to Collage: The Influence of Romare Bearden’s Art on August Wilson
By Tracy L. Van Dorpe
“[The art of Romare Bearden] was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.”
In a conversation held on 11 February 1998 at the Hood Museum of Art, playwright August Wilson spoke of the effect Romare Bearden’s art has had on his dramatic work and artistic vision. Bearden, who gained notoriety in the 1960s when he began working with collage as a means to express the African-American experience, first attracted Wilson’s attention through his book The Prevalence of Ritual. In addition to providing the creative genesis of Wilson’s plays Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) and The Piano Lesson (1990), Bearden’s collages have influenced Wilson’s artistic approach to drama. Specifically, Wilson has adopted Bearden’s expression of the African-American experience through collage in his series of plays on twentieth-century African-American history. (August Wilson, “Introduction,” in Romare Bearden: His Life and Art by Myron Schwartzman, as cited by Joan Fishman, “Romare Bearden, August Wilson, and the Traditions of African Performance,” in May All Your Fences Have Gates, Alan Nadel, ed. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994), 134.)
Spanning the years from 1910 to 1940, the Great Migration was the largest and most significant movement of African-Americans from the South to seemingly better conditions in the North and West. As developed by William W. Cook, the combination of pushing forces, such as the boll weevil, sharecropping conditions and Jim Crow laws, and pulling forces, like housing conditions, train transport and jobs in industry, fueled the greatest internal migration in American history. In time, the Great Migration replaced slavery and emancipation as the monumental cultural memory for black artists. The migration fundamentally altered the African-American experience, fragmenting families and transforming traditional culture. The sycretist culture which developed accommodated those changes but inhibited a return to the traditional way of life. Such upheaval fueled the search for cohesion, or as Donald E. Pease suggested, remembering the dismembered, which expressed itself eventually in the blues, Bearden’s collages and Wilson’s plays. (August Wilson and Victor Walker, “A Conversation with Playwright August Wilson,” 11 February 1998, Hood Museum of Art; William W. Cook, “The Great Migration in the Plays of August Wilson,” 10 February 1998, “Making the Real World Breathe: The Theater of August Wilson” Lecture Series; The theory of sociologist Robert Park as quoted by W.W. Cook, Ibid.; Donald E. Pease, “The Piano Lesson,” 30 January 1998, Drama 21.)
Romare Bearden, who participated in the migration as a young boy, found his artistic vision through collage to depict the fragmentation and reordering of African-American life. Wilson describes Bearden’s vision and its effect on him,
What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence. (Wilson, “Introduction,” 134.)
Bearden used collage to express the disjunction of the African-American experience, adopting his cultural specificity to express the commonality of culture. Wilson has embraced Bearden’s methods for his dramatic vision, similarly seeking universal relevance by celebrating African-American culture.
In writing a ten-play cycle of twentieth-century Black history, Wilson is attempting to right the story of a marginalized sector of society and bring order to that fragmented experience. Like Bearden, Wilson explores themes and motifs important to African-American culture, including trains (and the related migration), hands, birds, music and collage. The two works directly engendered by Bearden collages — Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by Millhand’s Lunch Bucket and The Piano Lesson by the collage of the same name — offer examples of these common themes. In Millhand’s Lunch Bucket, Wilson interprets the figure at the left, with the disproportionately large hand reaching for the lunch bucket, as Seth Holly, a proud northern Negro who supplements his income from the boardinghouse by crafting dustpans. The hand as a symbol of a character’s manhood and stunted opportunities is repeated throughout The Piano Lesson. Avery defines his expectations of a wife when he tells Berniece, “I need a woman that fits in my hand.” But Berniece rejects such a relationship, adding an extra dimension to Avery’s impotence as minister and man. When Boy Willie remembers, “Many is the time I looked at my daddy and seen him staring off at his hands. I got a little older I know what he was thinking. He sitting there saying, ‘I got these big old hands but what I’m gonna do with them?'” he articulates Wilson and Bearden’s portrayal of the African-American male dilemma. (Wilson, “Conversation.”; August Wilson, The Piano Lesson (New York: Plume, 1990), 66; Ibid., 91; August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (New York: Plume, 1988), 10.)
William W. Cook defines August Wilson’s plays as a single work, repeatedly exploring similar themes and variations on a singular story. Seen in this way, Joe Turner explores most fully the collage motif and reordering of a fragmented culture by looking to Africa. Bynam, the anachronistic conjurer man of the play, represents Africa and a return to the cultural cohesion that Black Americans sought after the Great Migration. Bynam believes that African-Americans have lost their soul to the white man and must regain their song in order to become independent individuals. Bynam sings the Binding Song, “Just like glue I sticks people together,” creating collages out of the forced fragmentation of the Great Migration, just as Romare Bearden and August Wilson establish a cohesive African-American cultural heritage with their artistic vision.
16 February 1998, Hanover, New Hampshire
In 1963, Romare Bearden (1912-1988) was part of a group of fifteen African-American artists who formed the organization Spiral. Inspired by the aims of the contemporary civil rights movement, the group sought to create a socially engaged aesthetic that reflected black culture and experience. For Spiral’s first group exhibition, entitled Black and White, Bearden proposed a collaborative collage made from magazine clippings.
Although the group project never took place, Bearden, who had previously worked as a painter, adapted the technique to his own work. He began creating small collages and then photographically enlarging them, creating black-and-white images he called “photomontage projections.”
Seeking to conceive archetypal images that reflected the continuity of his culture, Bearden chose subjects ranging from baptisms, burials, and the cotton fields of the South to jazz sessions, Harlem street life, and ritual figures such as the Conjur Woman. Rich in social meaning and compositional inventiveness, these photomontages represented a stylistic breakthrough that Bearden continued to refine until his death.
One of the most significant American artists of this century, Bearden has had solo exhibitions at such esteemed institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. His work is included in the collections of virtually every major museum in the United States.
Photo: Frank Stewart
This exhibition was organized and circulated by the Council for Creative Projects, Lee, Massachusetts, and New York, New York. Funding has been provided by the Madison Community Foundation; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission; The Art League of the Madison Art Center; the Exhibition Initiative Fund; the Madison Art Center’s 1997-1998 Sustaining Benefactors; and a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin.