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Romare Bearden, Three Folk Musicians

Romare Bearden, Three Folk Musicians, 1967, collage of various papers with paint and graphite on canvas, 50 x 60 x 1 ½ inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) A conversation with Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Dr. Leo Mazow, Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

Video transcript

(light jazz music) - [Leo] We're in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, looking at a large painting, which is also a collage. This is Romare Bearden's "Three Folk Musicians." - [Sarah] We have three figures made up of cutout pieces from magazines as well from paper that Romare Bearden painted at an earlier time with abstract stripes in different colors, blues, whites, greens. And he's used those to form the bodies of these three figures. - [Steven] These papers are in fact glued onto a previous all over abstract painting, the kind of thing that Pollock or de Kooning would do. - [Sarah] You also have a shifting in scale that he's able to achieve by using these cut up images. Some of the fingers are really large. Other fingers are smaller, but that also gives you this sense of movement, rhythm across these instruments. - [Leo] So, we have painted paper that has been cut out and reassembled on top of a preexisting canvas, creating this complex image. So complex, in fact, that at first glance, it may be hard to locate the three figures who are each musicians holding an instrument. - [Steven] We have from left to right: guitar, guitar, banjo. The literature on Bearden will remind us of his close friendship with musicians, people like Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. - [Leo] And it seems to me that the artist is responding to the history of modernism. In fact, the very subject of three musicians is one that has become by 1967 a trope. It had become a recognizable form. - [Steven] You're referring to the "Three Musicians" by Picasso in the manner in which the artist gives us a building up of form. - [Sarah] I also think it's important when we talk about what an art historian Romare Bearden was. He was not only looking at Matisse and Picasso, but if he was also looking at African art. - [Leo] And that was an important current in the Harlem Renaissance early in his life, the reclaiming of African culture in an American context. - [Sarah] And it went on to be a really important part of the Black Arts Movement. And he continued to be a mentor to many of the figures who participated in the black arts movement. - [Steven] This is a work that treads a very interesting back and forth between abstraction and representation. - [Leo] This is a moment in the artist's career when he has moved on from abstraction. Here, reintroducing the figure. - [Sarah] He's returning to figuration but he's done that through abstraction, and there really is this oscillating back and forth. - [Steven] But he's also thinking about what a musician thinks about, and that's reconciling parts with the whole, how is it that the parts of a story or of a song become reconciled a mass together in a whole. - [Sarah] In 1963, a group of artists meet in his studio and form a group called Spiral. They start to think about how they are going to respond as artists to the civil rights movement and what it means specifically to be a black artist. And that is when he begins to return to the idea of collage. - [Leo] So not only does the artist have a responsibility to his own career, to his own art making, but also with social responsibility of what it means to be black and to make art in the midst of the civil rights struggle. - [Steven] i do think that this is of a piece with the folk revival, in which individuals going all the way from Pete Seeger to Joan Baez. We see the African banjo in those settings, the mixing with the Western and European guitar over and over. And so this is a piece that repeats that type of Afro-European synthesis that we find in the folk revival. - [Leo] He's drawing a connection between music and visual art. (light jazz music)