REVIEW: Bearden/Picasso: Rhythms and Reverberations exhibition at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina

by Yvonne Bynoe

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) was not only a world renowned artist, he was also an avid reader and a student of art history. His scholarship impacted both the style and themes of his work. One of the artists he studied was Spaniard Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). In the early 1900s, Picasso revolutionized the art world with his Cubist paintings and became an internationally known artist. In the 1940s, Bearden saw many examples of Pablo Picasso's work in New York and wrote about them. After serving in World War II, Bearden returned to his art practice and, in 1945, he exhibited a series of Cubist-inspired watercolor and oil paintings titled, The Passion of Christ. The series of 24 works are more reflective of the human condition than portrayals of Biblical text.

Picasso ushered in Cubism and invented collage, and Bearden was influenced by Picasso, whose work was inspired by the African art that he studied and collected. Picasso and Bearden reflect the true nature of the creative process: borrowing and innovating. Picasso and Bearden, however, didn't have a personal relationship. Bearden studied at the Sorbonne in Paris between 1950-1952. During this time, he met Picasso who was 30 years his senior. Although some writers have erroneously stated that Bearden studied under Picasso, their meeting, in fact, was perfunctory. Bearden recounted it as simply what one did when you went to Paris, such as visiting the Eiffel Tower; artists met Picasso.

Art scholars and critics have written about Bearden's connection with Picasso, mostly in relation to Cubism. However, the exhibition Bearden/Picasso: Rhythms and Reverberations at The Mint Museum in Bearden’s birthplace of Charlotte, North Carolina is the first to pair together the works of two of the 20th century's most influential artists. The exhibition was curated by Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, senior curator of American art at The Mint Museum and includes three loaned works by Picasso and 17 by Bearden.

The Mint Museum has an extensive collection of Bearden’s works, and drew from its own holdings as well as from private and museum collections for this exhibition. Bearden/Picasso—on view from February 11 to May 21explores the commonalities between these two legendary artists. The Bearden/Picasso exhibition accompanies the landmark Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds at the Mint Museum organized by the nonprofit American Federation of Art, consisting of nearly 50 landscape paintings from private collectors. This is the first time these rare Picasso paintings will be seen together.

The fact that the Mint Museum was chosen as the opening venue for Picasso Landscapes speaks not only to Charlotte's growing national reputation but also to the organizer's desire to give people beyond the country's major cities the chance to see Picasso's paintings. The Mint Museum is the first of two venues in the U.S. and the only one on the East Coast to showcase the exhibition.

Stuhlman stated that the decision to mount the Picasso/Bearden exhibition on the same floor, alongside Picasso Landscapes, developed because of the museum's large collection of Bearden works and its physical capacity to accommodate both exhibitions. He said that the exhibit was a way to discuss the "shared interests" between Bearden and Picasso. Although the majority of works in the exhibition are Bearden’s later collages and prints, nearly half of the works are of his rarely seen early paintings from the 1940s.

The Mint Museum, by giving Bearden top billing in the Bearden/Picasso exhibition, clearly articulates to visitors who come to see Picasso Landscapes and may not be familiar with Bearden that he is of the same artistic importance and stature as Picasso. The two exhibitions are seamlessly designed so that visitors move easily from Picasso Landscapes to the Bearden/Picasso exhibition. The added effect of the Bearden/Picasso exhibition is that it will likely attract a more racially diverse audience than usual to the Mint Museum for both exhibitions.

African-American art lovers in Charlotte and around the country are excited about the opportunity to view Bearden's works alongside Picasso's paintings. Dennis Shelton, an artist from Yonkers, New York stated online, "I'm thrilled that Bearden is being paired and viewed next to Picasso, in real time. It's overdue." Ginger Danz, an artist and librarian from Roanoke, Virginia commented online that she was putting the exhibition on her calendar and was glad that Bearden was "getting his due."

The exhibition is divided into four themed sections: The first theme explores the two artists' affinity for bulls and bullfighting. The second considers how Bearden and Picasso used music and rhythm as subject matter and as artistic influences on their compositions. The third theme examines their shared interest in interior scenes and their use of doorways and windows as motifs within their works, and the fourth looks at each artist’s use of black outlines defining simplified, brightly colored forms called the “stained glass” aesthetic.

Unbeknownst to many art lovers, Bearden, like Picasso, was fascinated with bullfighting. Both men created works centered on the sport of bullfighting and the symbolism of bulls. As a child, Picasso went to bullfights with his father in Malaga, Spain. He admired the power and force of the bull and often referred to himself as a bull. Picasso saw the bull as emblematic of the Spanish identity. He also used the bull as a metaphor for man's animalistic, sexual passions. Between 1933-1934, he produced a series of paintings and drawings about bullfighting. In "The BullFighter (1934),” on exhibition in Bearden/Picasso, Picasso uses a tangle of black lines to depict the air of violence that engulfs a bullfight. A brown bull is flanked by a rearing stallion on the left and an angular and a green matador positioned on the right.

A few years before Picasso painted his bull fighting series, Bearden met the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca when he was in the United States from June 1929 to March 1930. Lorca's prose about bullfighting was metaphorical, focusing on the violence, suffering, death and resurrection that comprised the "religious mystery" (as he called it) of the bullfight that attracted him, Picasso, and Bearden to the sport. It is also believed that during this time, in New York, Bearden also met Spanish bullfighter Ignatius Sanchez Mejías, the subject of one of Lorca's poems. 

More than a decade after these meetings, Bearden painted a series of works on bullfighting and lamentation scenes inspired by Lorca's poems. These works created in 1945-1946 are considered among the most brilliant and modern compositions created in the 1940s. Bearden's oil painting, "At Five in the Afternoon (1946),” also on exhibit in Bearden/Picasso, references Lorca's line "a las cinco de la tarde," about the jarring combination of sights, sounds and smells of the afternoon bullfight. His painting portraying the sensory overload and drama of the bullfight relies stylistically on Picasso's Cubism. Bearden employs overlapping, intersecting, flat, and rounded shapes that look like they could have been cut out of construction paper. The bold color heightens the sense of intensity.

Picasso | "The Bullfighter" | 1934

Romare Bearden | "At Five in the Afternoon" | 1946 

The window motif can be found throughout Picasso’s entire body of work. Rather than acting as a utilitarian feature of a dwelling, Picasso used windows to convey the relationship between himself and the outer world. He often created paintings from the vantage point of him looking out his studio window. The resulting paintings are solitary affairs about the world he observed and have been said to act as a substitute for the self-portrait.  

In Bearden/Picasso, Picasso's painting, "Still Life In Front of an Open Window On the Water (ca.1923)” is hung next to Bearden's 1979 work "The Open Door." It's an interesting juxtaposition given the two artists' differing palettes, approaches and perspectives in these works, created more than a half-century apart from each other. Picasso's work is centered on himself and how he perceives the world beyond the open window. Bearden, on the other hand, isn't part of the narrative in his “The Open Door." Insofar, it's not a first person account. It is a barefoot woman wearing a headscarf  looking through an open door and seeing another woman, perhaps a relative or close friend bathing. Picasso's muted work is a lone individual separated from the world, while Bearden vividly portrays two people engaging on some level with each other.

Bearden's "The Open Door" from his Mecklenburg series is related to his memories and perceptions of everyday life in the South, being part of a community. It was drawn from rituals, such as a preacher baptizing people in the rivers or at religious revivals where sinners are born again after being doused with a bucket of water, and the daily customs and routines of African Americans he encountered in Charlotte, which was once known only as Mecklenburg County.

Bearden lived In Charlotte until he was four years old when his family moved to Harlem. Bearden's observations of the South gleaned from his brief childhood in Charlotte and his visits greatly influenced his oeuvre. Bearden returned to Charlotte in the 1970s as his career was taking off and discovered how "urban renewal" was erasing the African-American community of his youth. His bittersweet homecoming may have given Bearden an incentive to memorialize his Southern stories and recollections through his art.

Picasso | "Nature Morte devant une Fenêtre Ouverte sur l'Eau" | 1923

Romare Bearden | "The Open Door" | 1979

Romare Bearden is regarded as one of the world's master painters and collage artists. He changed the Western art canon by creating bold visual narratives centered on African Americans and Black Southern culture that told universal stories. Visitors of Bearden/Picasso will recognize works such as “The Piano Lesson (Homage to Mary Lou)," inspired by jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, "The Train (1975),” or "Conjur Woman as Angel (1964).”  They're, however, probably less familiar with works such as those from his The Passion of the Christ series from the 1940s which are included in the exhibition. Although the Bearden/Picasso exhibition isn't large, the variety of works that are on view are important because people gain a fuller understanding about the range of artistic styles, literary influences and subject matter contained within Bearden's body of work.   

Admission to Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds includes admission to Bearden/Picasso: Rhythms and Reverberations.

Mint Museum Uptown

at Levine Center for the Arts
500 South Tryon Street
Charlotte, NC 28202

February 11- March 21, 2023


Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is also a cultural critic and author.




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