Campbell, Mary Schmidt, An American Odyssey; the Life and Work of Romare Bearden. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2018. xiii+ 443 pages. Hardcover, $34.95.
Romare Bearden--Fred Howard Romare Bearden (1911-1988)--deserves this very fine biography. The many and spectacular color images alone are worth the cost of the book.
Had Bearden done nothing but the huge Projections (1964) collage of black urban life, he would deserve a full biography. It is a loving but no-nonsense tribute to the people of Harlem and the nation. However, as biographer Mary Schmidt Campbell amply demonstrates, he did much more and filled a busy life on a very public stage on which he played multiple roles, including behind the scenes of that stage. Though not always overtly in politics, in the garden variety sense of Aristotle's term, Bearden was always a public figure of moral and aesthetic authority. Besides his leadership and talent, Bearden was very much what the late Gore Vidal had in mind when he spoke of the "celebrity class."
As a meticulous biographer, Campbell herself plays many public roles, not only as president of Spelman College but also as an art museum curator. In fact, she is a participant observer more than most art historians can be, and she refers often and effectively not only to installations she sees and critiques but also to her own interviews with Bearden. Her classical allusion to Homer's Odyssey is deliberate and apt: as a veteran of American and other race wars, Bearden was to Harlem as Odysseus was to Ithaca, and his long and complicated fights and flights were climaxed by a brave but problematical return to his starting point. If art itself is his Penelope, then art too is loyal and dedicated to him even and especially as he travels other worlds before coming back to serve her in Harlem in political as well as aesthetic sense. Besides living a fascinating life, Bearden was at the scenes of important political and cultural events in Harlem. Indeed, a subtheme of this biography is the creative tension between his intent to be an artist who paints for the sake of painting and an artist...