Bearden used conventional and innovative processes in his printmaking, including cutting copper plates into sections,
inking plates through a variety of methods, applying rainbow rolls, hand coloring and using photographic processes.
This experimentation allowed him to create prints that vary dramatically in appearance.
Bearden noted with pride that modern art “borrowed heavily” from African sculpture. Bearden’s work is populated with African themes: heroic Africans, the captivity and resistance of slaves taken from Africa and figures wearing and dancing masks. Bearden often constructed facial forms and figural motifs using fragments drawn from African sculpture. Even works about biblical subjects like Salome and Christian rituals such as baptism depict people with faces derived from African masks.
Bearden said he was “affected by the African concepts,” such as “the land, the beauty of black women, the protective presence of the dead, and the acceptance of intuition.”
Bearden said the beauty of black women was one of his most important subjects. Black women appear alone with their thoughts in domestic settings or in gardens, with their families, as mothers with children, as singers on stage and as lovers and nudes. They are also represented taking part in religious processions and as biblical subjects such as Delilah and Salome. Bearden also created “conjure” women who possessed supernatural powers.
Bearden depicted strong, self-reliant African-American women like those of his youth, his great-grandmother, grandmothers and mother. Bessye Johnson, Bearden’s mother, was a powerful influence in Bearden’s life. She was a college graduate, a social and political activist and the New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, an important African American newspaper.
The theme of jazz and blues in Bearden’s art gives form to his vivid memories of the flourishing 1930s music scene in Harlem, New York. Bearden believed that his art, like jazz, expressed a sense of freedom and improvisation.
Bearden’s interest in jazz and blues ran deep. Fats Waller and Duke Ellington were frequent visitors to his home in Harlem. He composed music, depicted Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday in his art and named works after jazz compositions. He designed many album covers including Wynton Marsalis’ J Mood (c. 1985) and Celebrations: Trumpet Spot, Wynton (c. 1983).
Although only seven prints in this exhibition relate to Greek myth, these themes were a fundamental part of Bearden’s oeuvre. In 1977, he created a cycle of collages and watercolors based on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, which recounts the Greek hero Odysseus’ epic journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.
Bearden’s version of The Odyssey was meant to convey the universality of Greek myth to black audiences. Bearden’s black Odysseus is a warrior, thinker, athlete, orator and accomplished negotiator who, once back in Ithaca, saves his home from traitors who have been holding it under siege. Bearden associated the trials of Odysseus—his epic struggle and ultimate triumph—with African American experience.
Religious rituals are the means through which people express spiritual beliefs. Bearden’s work depicts baptisms, biblical events like the Annunciation and religious figures such as Noah, Salome, Delilah and the Madonna and Child.
Religious subjects reflect Bearden’s childhood memories. Bearden’s focus was the religious fervor expressed through rituals that remained important and reflected African American experience.
Bearden often infused his biblical subjects with African references, introducing masked figures, as in Baptism.