It would have been near the end of summer in 1927, boarding a train to Pittsburgh, when a young Romare Bearden last waved goodbye to his friend Liza. I imagine him watching her on the platform, shrinking in the distance as the train pulls away, then shifting his gaze to the fields and houses sliding past. It would be five decades before he returned to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Well into his 60s, Bearden must have recalled that day as bittersweet. In three collages — “Daybreak Express,” “Sunset Limited” and “Moonlight Express” — trains move along the horizon, marking the space between an unclouded sky and a landscape dense with scenery.
These are part of Bearden’s autobiographical Profile Series, which was undertaken by the late-career American master not long after his return visit to Mecklenburg County in 1976. Traveling from the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through May 24, “Something Over Something Else” marks the first time so many of the works from this groundbreaking series have been shown together since they were first exhibited nearly 40 years ago.
The 33 pieces — most collage, all exquisite — are arranged by place and decade. Each is accompanied by a short evocative statement written by Bearden with his friend, author Albert Murray. The exhibition leads us through the artist’s firsthand recollections: From his earliest memories in North Carolina and growing up in Harlem in the 1920s — where W.E.B. Dubois and Duke Ellington were frequent guests in his parents’ living room — to school in Pittsburgh in the 1930s and finally to 1940s Manhattan, where we see the artist as a young man.
Using cut and torn magazine photographs, often with layers of paint, these collages are visually and emotionally vibrant. Despite the reliance on memory, it’s worth noting they never veer into nostalgia. Instead, they form a powerful coming-of-age story that transcends the autobiographical. On my first visit to this show, I lost track of time looking at the details. When I left nearly two hours later, it was like waking up from a dream in which I had lived an entire lifetime.
“Something Over Something Else” runs through May 24 at the currently closed Cincinnati Art Museum. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.