Madonna and Child, ca. 1968–70
Mixed media on board
29½ x 19 inches
Kurt Berger Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Koch Fund, and Renato and Giorgio Marmont Fund Purchase, 91.11.1
© Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Essay by Dennis Michael Jon
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Featuring elements of figural abstraction, Christian iconography, and an African ritual object, Bearden’s mixed media collage Madonna and Child is one of universal implication, a modern expression and symbol of the power and intimacy of this most fundamental of human relationships. The theme of mother and child was of considerable importance to Bearden, recurring throughout his career. For this collaged version of the subject, he adopted the compositional motif of the Virgin Hodegetria (“She who shows the way”), one of several traditional forms of Byzantine icon painting associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The collage conforms to many of the conventions of this type of devotional image, which focuses on the sacred role of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. Bearden depicted the Madonna in half-length, tenderly cradling the Child Jesus in her left arm as she presents him to the world as the path of salvation. Calm, yet pensive, she gazes directly at the viewer, her serene presence a sign of grace, compassion, and strength in the face of sacrifice. Bearden heightened the abstract qualities of the work by flattening the perspective and placing the figures of mother and child close to the picture plane, crowding them into the scene’s shallow, but otherwise empty space.
Bearden further emphasized the Christian source of his imagery by inserting a fragment of a photomechanical reproduction of a Byzantine icon to represent a portion of the figure of Jesus, who raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing. The Child Jesus appears to hold a book or scroll of the Scriptures in his left hand, a traditional symbol of his role as teacher and source of divine wisdom. At the same time, Bearden represented the head of Jesus with the characteristic flat disk-shaped head and abstracted facial features of an akua’ba, a carved ritual fertility doll that originated from legends of the Asante peoples of Ghana. This reference to an African ritual object serves as a visual cue that both reinforces the multicultural context of his subject and brings to mind medieval devotional images that depict the Madonna and Child with black or dark skin. By combining biblical and mythic symbols within a single composition, Bearden sought to link different cultures and peoples, thus giving the subject a universal dimension. In this context, such concepts as birth, rebirth, and the sacred bond between mother and child are at once religious and secular, common to all cultures, races, and times.
The technique of collage offered Bearden the perfect solution to articulate his social and political concerns with modern black experience. He first experimented with the medium in the late 1950s, intrigued by its versatility, modern aesthetic, and potential for psychological and emotional content. During the early 1960s, he shifted his focus from painting and abstraction to collage and figuration, a move that challenged the prevailing avant-garde trends and sparked the development of his signature style. Bearden considered the creative process itself to be an essential catalyst for artistic expression, something he likened to jazz, where improvisation, expressive freedom, and personal interpretation are defining characteristics.
Madonna and Child exemplifies Bearden’s early collage technique. The artist fashioned intricately layered compositions from various cut and torn fragments of painted paper and photographic images cut from books or popular magazines such as Life and Ebony. A master synthesizer, Bearden intuitively integrated these disparate elements into an expressive, unified whole, using complex overlays of positive and negative pictorial space to generate visual and psychological tension. Rhythmic patterning, areas of flat saturated colors, and distortion of scale and space heighten the picture’s visual power. Here, gray serves as a counterpoint to areas of color, blending easily with black and white photographic images. Through a fusion of color, shapes, and figures, Bearden skillfully balanced form and content in a highly personal interpretation of the subject.
Since Bearden left many of his works undated, including the present collage, determining and assigning a date for Madonna and Child must rely on secondary evidence. In that regard, the collage shares significant stylistic and compositional similarities with other examples of the subject that are known to date from the late 1960s and early 1970s. These include the mixed media collages Black Madonna and Child (1969), in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Mother and Child (1970), owned by the Baltimore Museum of Art; and Mother and Child (1971), in the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection (fig. 1). Based on these affinities and other evidence, the present collage can reasonably be dated to around the period between 1968 and 1970.
 Both secular and religous representations of the subject appear in Bearden's oeuvre from the 1940s through the 1980s. See Robert G. O'Meally, Kobena Mercer et al., Romare Bearden in the Modernist Tradition (New York: Romare Bearden Foundation, 2010) and Ruth E. Fine et al., The art of Romare Bearden (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003).
 The Byzantine image type known as the Virgin Hodegetria is named after the miraculous icon kept at the Hodegon monastery of Constantinople (Istanbul) that was the original model for this iconographic formula.
 The origin, symbolism, and ritual function of the akua’ba are discussed in Doran H. Ross, “Akua’s Child and Other Relatives: New Mythologies for Old Dolls,” in Isn’t S/He a Doll? Play and Ritual in African Sculpture, ed. Elisabeth L. Cameron (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1996), 43-57.
 Medieval depictions of the Virgin Mary with black or dark skin are widely documented within the Catholic Church and art historical literature. Generally dating from between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, these devotional images of the Black Madonna (or Black Virgin) have generated significant debate among scholars with respect to their historical origins and meanings.
 Bearden addresses the relationship between his artistic practice and jazz music in the artist’s statement he wrote for the exhibition catalogue Since Harlem Renaissance: 50 Years of Afro-American Art (Lewisburg, Pa.: Center Gallery, Bucknell University, 1985).
 Fine et al., Art of Romare Bearden, 144.