At Baltimore Museum, Bearden prints are a beautiful symphony for the eye

June 17, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Walk into the show of Romare Bearden's prints at th Baltimore Museum of Art and you are surrounded by a symphony of visual melodies. These works are rich and deep, a full orchestra playing flat out, and they envelop you with beauty.

Bearden was an African-American whose work addresses the black experience in America, but its implications are much wider than that; he ranged history, mythology and the history of art, from the Trojan War and the Bible to Dutch genre painting, collage and cubism, to create images that speak to the effort to find a commonality of heritage and values in a polyglot world.

His "Mother and Child" are a madonna and your next-door neighbor. His works based on the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" cannot help but remind us of the loss of civilizations and the effort to find roots; they are pertinent to the African-American experience, but also to all of us, whether descendants of immigrants or of the original peoples of the Western Hemisphere whose land was stolen and whose way of life was destroyed. His works on family life -- "Homage to Mary Lou," "The Lamp," "Quilting Time," "Mecklenburg Autumn" -- throb with universal memory and love.

Those who saw the 1981 Bearden show at the Baltimore Museum or last year's retrospective at the National Museum of American Art in Washington will find familiar images in his prints, for he often reused ideas from other media. That's no reason not to see this exhibit, for both the works and their installation allow a fresh view of Bearden.

Of all Bearden's works, the prints may well be the most sheerly beautiful. If they lack some of the toughness of his other works, they are more accessible, more harmonious.

In the current installation, about 90 of the prints have been hung densely in three galleries, stacked two and three high on the walls. This sounds like a disadvantage, but actually it's the opposite; more of these often-crowded individual images don't overload the viewer but enrich and sustain one another.

That's especially true here, because the installation is not chronological but organized by subject matter. A gallery full of two dozen or more of Bearden's domestic scenes creates a whole world, one that begins to exist for the viewer in time as well as in space. One comes to feel like a visitor in this world, getting to know its daily and even seasonal rhythms. The organization also sheds light on how Bearden matched his manner to his matter. In his family scenes, to a greater extent than in any of his other works here, a geometric structure -- ostensibly doors, windows, walls, etc., but fundamentally abstract -- often provides a compositional foundation underlying the organic shapes of people, nature and activity. In such a way the artist visualizes the solid and permanent (and abstract) values that underlie the everyday ebb and flow of family activity. In the "Jazz" series, by contrast, all is liquid movement.

Cumulatively, one cannot help being moved by the essential optimism of this artist who came of an oppressed people and spent most of his life in a struggle for the recognition he deserved. These are positive pictures, both in what they have to say and in the way they say it.


What: "A Graphic Odyssey: Romare Bearden as Printmaker"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near North Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Aug. 15

Call: (410) 396-7100

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