Collection Spotlight: Romare Bearden
October 6, 2020
By Géranne Darbouze
Within the NYU Art Collection is found an unusual watercolor, one clearly inspired by the Cubist art movement of the 20th century as well as by African masks—a work composed of a puzzle-like array of geometric shapes coming together to form an image that seems to be all at once inside, outside, reflected, and a portal view. Seated in the left foreground is a woman robed in black who faces both away from and toward us. In the background are two donkeys that appear to be in another space, separated by a low wall. The donkey at the right is also depicted in a disorienting way: Its head is colored half blue, half tan, as if to signify its simultaneous retreat and arrival. The simpler tan donkey at the left faces us head-on. In front of the wall, a man stands before a large opening into a landscape with a sinuous road. The man’s face, tan like those of the donkeys, signifies his presence; he wears a blue-colored shoulder wrap over his dark brown cloak. Kneeling before the woman at the left is another figure, clad in brown stripes with a pink-and-blue headdress. If you have not yet glanced at this work’s title, perhaps you have not figured out what this mysterious scene represents. I will let you in on the secret: it is Romare Bearden’s Adoration of the Magi.
Made in 1945, shortly after end of World War II—during which Bearden had served stateside in an all-black infantry division—this watercolor derives from his series The Passion of Christ, which depicts pivotal moments in Christ’s life. When I first viewed NYU’s watercolor, I struggled to locate the infant Christ and finally found him in his mother’s lap, a diminutive white figure who looks down at the kneeling Magus reaching for his tiny feet. The paintings in Bearden’s series are unique—they resemble neither his previous works nor those he made later. Instead, they mark a discrete turning point not only in Bearden’s stylistic journey, but also in his life’s journey.
Justifiably interpretable as both making a point and voicing a protest, Bearden’s Adoration of the Magi, along with the ten other watercolors and thirteen oils in his Passion of Christ series, help illuminate the artist’s relationship with his sense of self, his race, and the impact of his era in defining these things. Often expected to “carry the mantle of the ‘American Negro Artist’” and tell a particular story based on other people’s understanding of racial experience, Bearden used Cubism to depict Biblical scenes to assert, in my view, that often what is commonly defined as unrelated to Blackness is actually born of Blackness. In these works, Bearden depicts his figures’ faces to express multiple emotions unfolding through multiple points in time—in contrast with the better-known Cubist tendency to represent multiple points of view. Bearden’s approach to rendering faces is directly related to the depiction of a range of emotions found in traditional African ceremonial masks, which represent deities as living forms. This throws light on Bearden’s decision to use them in his symbolic explorations of Christian themes. In other words, something that may not, at first glance, be obviously related to “authentic” Black experience is actually quite significant and relevant to the lives of Black people.
In all the works in his Passion of Christ series, Bearden sends a clear message: that all our existences, like that of the Christ Child, are pre-ordained, and that every moment we experience is as important as the one that came before. In this work, Bearden uses color and line to create a dizzying sense of perspective in an image that represents movement through both space and time. Thus it is not unreasonable to state that Bearden perceived his relationship to his race and his art through the lens of the passage of time. As a young man, he had always been creative, making cartoons for various publications while also taking art classes. From the beginning, he saw his path clearly, and he pursued it undaunted even as the world was being reborn in the aftermath of wartime devastation—here symbolized in Christ’s birth.
 Thomas B. Cole, “Adoration of the Wise Men: Romare Bearden,” Journal of the American Medical Association 310, No. 24 (2013). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/1793771.
Géranne Darbouze is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery who is majoring in Film and Television Production and minoring in Art History and Religious Studies. She expects to receive her BFA in January 2021.