"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me..." - Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
These powerful words begin Ralph Ellison's iconic tale of racial alienation written over a seven-year period immediately after the end of the Second World War, before much of America had begun to wake up to the racial injustice in their midst. After its publication in 1952, Ellison's Invisible Man became one of the most important works of twentieth century fiction and introduced the millions of readers to the harsh reality of life for many of their fellow Americans. The book remained on the best seller lists for sixteen weeks and continues to be a standard text in many schools and colleges, introducing students to the struggles faced by many of their forebears, only a generation before them.
Ellison and his wife, Fanny, were a true Renaissance couple. In addition to his writing, Ellison was also a literary critic, sculptor, photographer and scholar. He was a keen musician who began playing the trumpet at the age of 8, an interest he cultivated, eventually studying classical composition at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His interest in all forms of music led him to form long-term friendships with the blues singer Jimmy Rushing and the trumpeter Hot Lips Page. Fanny was involved in theater, politics and civil rights. She was a founder of the Negro People's Theater in 1937 while she lived in Chicago, before joining the Chicago Defender newspaper where she was the author of a column called "Along the Political Front," as well as writing numerous reviews and essays. She also played an important role in Ellison's success as a writer, spending long-hours editing and typing up his handwritten manuscripts, often adding her own comments or thoughts in the margins.
The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, established under the will of Fanny Ellison, was the beneficiary of five works by Romare Bearden collected by the Ellisons over the course of their marriage and their friendship with the artist. The Trust has gifted one those works, Two Women in a Landscape, to the Studio Museum in Harlem. The remaining four works are being offered by Christie's for the benefit of the Trust's charitable programs, which include The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Scholarship administered by the United Negro College Fund.
Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden became acquainted in the 1930s, and what began as a shared love of music, soon grew into a wider appreciation of art, culture and politics. Their friendship flourished as the two men began to explore how the nature of their respective arts could be used to highlight the social injustices they witnessed in the world. The combined power of their work would eventually be joined together when Bearden asked Ellison to write his first ever essay on art for Bearden's 1968 exhibition Paintings and Projections at the Art Gallery of the State University of New York at Albany. In his introduction, Ellison recalled the profound impact that his friend's art had had on him, "During the late Thirties when I first became aware of Bearden's work, he was painting scenes of the Depression in a style strongly influenced by the Mexican muralists. This work was powerful, the scenes grim and brooding, and through his depiction of unemployed workingmen in Harlem he was able, while evoking the Southern past, to move beyond the usual protest painting of that period to reveal something of the universal elements of an abiding human condition. By striving to depict something of the times, by reducing scene, character and atmosphere to a style, he caught both the universality of Harlem life and the "harlemness" of the national human predicament" (R. Ellison, Romare Bearden: Paintings and Projections, exh. cat., New York, 1968, n.p. ).
Like Ellison, Bearden was reaching out to a new audience, to persuade a wider population that what he and his contemporaries had to say was important, not just to them, but to the wider society as a whole. Bearden's art was inclusive, rather than exclusive, and it could relate to anyone, wherever they were, regardless of race or background. As Bearden once said, "The true artist feels that there is only one art-and that it belongs to all mankind" (R. Bearden, Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1988).
The quartet of enigmatic figures that appear in Romare Bearden's Strange Morning, Interior demonstrates not only his mastery of the medium of collage but also his position as one of the foremost chroniclers of life in twentieth century America. A central figure in the famed Harlem Renaissance, Bearden cast his eye over the sights, sounds and rituals of a burgeoning African-American middle class as they began to take place in a wider American society. From his unique viewpoint he renders his characters with honesty that is expressed not only in his choice of medium, but also in the fact that he comes from the tradition which he is portraying, as Bearden himself noted "I work out of response and need to redefine the image of man in terms of the Negro experience I know best" (R. Bearden, quoted in J.A. Williams, The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, New York, 1073, p. 9).
Silhouetted against a background of rectangular planes of subtle color the ghostly profiles of four figures appear to stare intently at each other. Only one of the figures, the large disconnected figure on the right of the composition breaks the internal dynamic of the work by staring directly out at the viewer. This act of engagement draws the viewer into the dynamic that is taking place within the confines of the picture plane. Composed of various pieces of collaged colored paper, newsprint and other fragments of printed ephemera, these figures appear disconnected from each other, a facter enhanced by Bearden's deliberate inclusion of the strict geometric shapes that permeate the background of the composition. As the title suggests, this scene is an interior yet despite their close proximity these figures appear not to be associated with each other or their surroundings. The evocative atmosphere is heightened by Bearden's extensive rubbing away of the surface paper, sometimes right down to the raw fibers of the paper and board underneath the printed or painted layer. Strange Morning, Interior is an important early example of his use of this abrasion technique, a device that was to become increasingly important in his work from the 1970s onwards. Using various grades of sandpaper he would carefully remove all or part of the collaged elements creating a moody and dreamlike aura.
Bearden's peripatetic youth and his extensive contacts with artists in both American and Europe, including Stuart Davis, George Braque and Constantin Brancusi meant he was able to draw upon a number of disparate influences. But it was his contacts with the German émigré George Grosz that appeared to have the most impact on his career. While he was working as an editorial cartoonist in New York, Bearden enrolled in evening classes at the city's Arts Students League where he met and studied under Grosz. Despite already working as a professional artist, Bearden was enthralled by this opportunity to study under one of the masters of German Expressionism, "I couldn't wait for the evenings to get there," he once said, "because I felt I had a lot to learn" (R. Bearden quoted in R. Fine, "Romare Bearden: The Spaces Between," The Art of Romare Bearden, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 2003, p. 9). Grosz had been an influential member of the German Dada movement and it has been suggested that he had introduced his students to the political drawings and collages of his fellow Dadaist, Max Ernst and Hanna Höch. The highly charged satirical and political nature of their work can be seen as a possible pre-cursor to Bearden's perceptive observations that he began producing a quarter of a century later.