As the editor of the monthly email newsletter Met News, I have the pleasure of interviewing curators and other experts about works of art from the Museum's collections. More than 113,000 subscribers already receive Met News, but I'm happy to be able to include selected interviews here for an even wider audience.
For this month's issue, I interviewed Lisa M. Messinger, associate curator in the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, about Romare Bearden's masterful, mural-size collage The Block. Thanks to a recent gift of eleven preliminary drawings and two related photographs, visitors to the current exhibition at the Museum are now able to learn about Bearden's process as an artist, and to see The Block as the culmination of his particular vision.
Jennette Mullaney: Bearden said, "When I sketched this block, I was looking at a particular street, but as I translated it into visual form it became something else. I lost the literalness and moved into where my imagination took me." How do the preparatory drawings and Albert Murray's photographs affect your understanding of Bearden's translation of a literal block into The Block?
Lisa Messinger: Bearden looked out the window of his friend Albert Murray's apartment and was inspired to create this epic narrative out of something that was very familiar and ordinary. In the snapshots the street looks really gray and innocuous, but then Bearden takes his imagination and his colorful pens and begins drawing the things that he sees—like the buildings and the people—and the things that he doesn't actually see, like the angels (or let's hope he doesn't see them). It's really great to have these studies for the collage, but what I realized is that none of them match up exactly to the finished composition. They're not one-to-one studies for specific sections of the collage, but rather the artist's first impressions of the scene. During the process of going from sketch to collage, he used artistic license to make changes that would keep your eye moving around the composition from color to color, from image to image. Everywhere you look there's something to see, inside and out.
Jennette Mullaney: Bearden plays with scale throughout the work. For instance, he includes an image of a child's face that is larger than some full-length figures within the same panel. What do you think Bearden was trying to convey with this creative use of scale?
Lisa Messinger: I think he wanted to bring attention to certain narrative elements in the picture. He wants you to focus on the entire composition, but also see the small, little, human moments that are happening. By showing a giant child's face, or children in a window with a giant mousetrap, it makes you look at them more carefully than if they were in proper scale, and makes you wonder what's going on in their lives behind those tenement walls. For Bearden, who worked for many years as a social worker, and who was well aware of the economic conditions and social problems in Harlem, The Block was a compilation of these stories—and ultimately, a celebration of the triumphant human spirit, told one window, one person, one enlargement at a time.
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Jennette Mullaney is associate email marketing manager in the Department of Digital Media.