Painting of the Day

22 Jul

Tomorrow I May Be Far Away. by Romare Bearden (1911-1988). Collage of various papers with charcoal and graphite on canvas, 1967. Belongs to the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Notes from

Bearden’s title, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, evocative of journeys and partings, comes from the blues classic “Good Chib Blues,” recorded by Edith North Johnson in 1929. And like the blues, this monumental collage by Romare Bearden derives its power from repetitions, multiple meanings, and the layered associations of its imagery. Richly interwoven with metaphor and memory, informed by art historical tradition and life experience, and steeped in a vibrant African American cultural heritage, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away is quintessential Bearden in its expression of the universal human condition.

Bearden’s art is exceptional for the way in which it expands the jazz and blues idioms into the visual realm through the medium of collage. In Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, the artist created the visual counterpart of improvisational jazz intervals—marked by shifts in scale, breaks in color and pattern, and disarranged perspectives—and employed repetition, a characteristic of the blues, through the juxtaposition of cuttings from his own hand-painted papers along with those from magazines, catalogues, wrapping papers or wallpapers, and at least one art reproduction—a snippet of a photo reproduction of Henri Rousseau’s The Dream (1910), from the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The result is a rich and varied surface, further enhanced by the artist with charcoal and graphite additions. Bearden said: “People have asked me why I use the collage. I find that when some detail such as a hand or an eye is taken out of its original context and placed in a different space and form configuration, it acquires a different quality.  In such a process the meaning is extended.”

The central figure in Tomorrow I May Be Far Away is seated in front of a rustic cabin. Behind his left shoulder the exterior wall is pierced by a single open window through which a second figure looks out. The shingled wall of the shack is composed of a staccato arrangement of clippings displaying various wood grains that have been repurposed from a catalogue or other printed source.  Constructed of printed papers, this exterior wall also suggests the interior walls of early 20th century sharecropper’s shacks in the rural south, where newspaper, magazine, and catalogue pages were commonly pasted to provide both insulation and adornment.

Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and his southern roots became the linchpin for his art: “I put the South in my work because it seems near to me. I can’t seem to exhaust the things I remember. The South seems to me, in other words, to be more in my work than any other place.”

Other references to southern rural life can be found in this scene, including the female figure dressed for farm work wearing a head scarf and long skirt and holding an armful of produce.  In the upper right corner of the composition is a train, smoke billowing from its stack as it speeds across the landscape.

Train images recur frequently in Bearden’s art in all media. The train is one of his “journeying things,” bringing with it many associations, from the personal (his father had for a time worked for the railroad) to the broader allusions of the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration. In a 1977 interview Bearden noted: “Trains are so much a part of Negro life. Negroes lived near the tracks, worked on the railroads, and trains carried them North during the migration.” The importance of repetition and recurring motifs like the train in Bearden’s art has an equivalent in the call-and-response of blues music and in the improvisation of jazz. As Bearden famously explained, “I paint out of the tradition of the blues, of call and recall. You start a theme and you call and recall.”


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