Wrapping it up at the Lafayette, 1974
Romare Bearden (American, 1912-1988)
collage, acrylic, and lacquer,
Framed: 123.30 x 93.40 x 6.70 cm (48 1/2 x 36 3/4 x 2 5/8 inches);
Unframed: 121.90 x 91.50 cm (47 15/16 x 36 inches).
Cleveland Museum of Art
a gift from: Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1985.41
Coming of age in New York in the 1930's, Bearden was immersed in the cultural revolution of the Harlem Renaissance. His home was located across the street from Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre, a hub for musicians such as Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. Bearden sought a way to translate the elements of jazz into visual art and discovered that collage was the ideal medium for capturing the spontaneity and improvisation of the genre, thus creating a lively visual rhythm.
Famous for its musical revues and plays during the 1920's and 1930's, the Lafayette Theater in New York's Harlem section made Seventh Avenue and 132nd Street a mecca for those seeking stylish entertainment. In this exuberant collage, Romare Bearden conveyed the lively rhythm and vibrant color of the Lafayette during its heyday. Using pictures from magazines, scraps of paper, and bits of fabric, Bearden arranged several scenes, as they would appear to the theater audience. The band plays below in the pit, while dancers and singers perform energetically above on stage. African masks and exotic tree and flower forms decorate a backdrop topped by a scalloped red curtain. Bearden excelled in the medium of collage, using it to express the spirit and reality of African-American culture. Inspired by his love of jazz and memories of his youth, he once explained, "I work out of a response and need to redefine the image of man in terms of the Negro experience I know best." This composition is from his "Of the Blues" series of 1974.
Bearden looked to music—jazz and the blues—for many of his subjects. He painted entire series of works entitled Of the Blues and Of Jazz. They emerged from memory and experience of the South—of gospels and spirituals sung in church, of blue notes bending through warm nights. And they emerged from his life in New York—the sophistication of bands playing Harlem clubs, the excitement of crowded dance floors.
How could it be otherwise? When he was a boy, Bearden's family apartment was just across the street from the stage door of the Lafayette. Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald—they were all guests in the Bearden home. He lived only blocks from the Savoy Ballroom and for sixteen years worked in a studio above the fabled Apollo Theatre. Bearden saw jazz as a metaphor for the energy of life.
Music played a direct part of Bearden's life. He was not only a listener, a fan, and an artist who explored musical themes—he was, for a while, a songwriter. Hoping to make more money writing music than painting, he penned a few hits, including "Seabreeze," which was recorded by Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, Bearden was connected to music through his outlook on life. The blues lets you feel good by feeling bad. As Bearden said, "Even though you go through these terrible experiences, you come out feeling good. That's what the blues say and that's what I believe—life will prevail."