Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey
Amon Carter Museum of American Art
May 18, 2013 through August 11, 2013
Already an ardent fan of Romare Bearden’s vivid collage compositions, I was keen on viewing this comprehensive showing of his 1977 black Odyssey series while listening to the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s jazz recording: Romare Bearden Revealed. A child of the Harlem Renaissance, Bearden’s affinity for jazz music is well known and integrated into his artistic technique. For me, listening to Marsalis celebrating the connection between Bearden’s art and jazz inspires a greater connection to the heart of Bearden’s virtuosity.
Upon entering the first gallery of the exhibition, I was immediately lured off my preconceived itinerary and into a tour facilitated by Ms. Burt, an Amon Carter docent whose passion for Bearden’s art is gloriously palpable. Ms. Burt kept our large group, of diverse persuasions and generations, in constant conversation about world history, Bearden’s personal life experiences and the artist’s inspirations; all threaded to parallel themes from Homer’s The Odyssey.
“So…if a child in Benin or in Louisiana…sees my paintings of Odysseus, he can understand the myth better.” — Romare Bearden, explaining why the characters in his Odyssey are black.
At its crux, A Black Odyssey is an interpretation of the Greek myth of Odysseus as if it occurred in Africa. The series also includes thematic references to the epic plight of African Americans and Native Americans in U.S. history as both groups battled for their freedom, their rights and their homes; reminiscent of Bearden’s socially conscious art in the 1960s.
In Battle with Cicones there is an evocation to American Indians, in a Ciconian figure bearing a traditional Native American headdress. Odysseus and his men have taken the Ciconian capital city by surprise; slaying most of the Ciconian men and taking Ciconian women as slaves. In this scene, Bearden illustrates Ciconian reinforcements attacking Odysseus and his men, killing so many of them that the remaining men retreat to their ships.
Bearden studied philosophy and history of art at Paris’ Sorbonne in 1950. Influences from modern European artists, like Matisse and Picasso, can be seen in many of his compositions. These are intermingled with strong symbolism from African sculpture, masks, and textiles; also important interests of Bearden’s that are reflected in his art. Throughout A Black Odyssey, Bearden represents all characters with flat Cubist silhouettes; in essence connecting Cubism back to its African roots.
In The Sea Nymph, Odysseus is depicted sinking into the depths of Poseidon’s vengeful and raging sea, wrapped in a cloth with a distinctive African textile pattern. The cloth is actually a magical veil from Ino, the Sea Nymph, saving him from the waves. A close viewing of the artwork shows the magical veil covering Odysseus’ eyes, as he gives himself up completely to being saved by a powerfully feminine figure. While studying the voluptuous dark silhouette of Ino, I could hear the sensuous bolero of Seabreeze. How very appropriate to have this jazz classic, co-written by the artist, wafting through galleries displaying his work. The music flows just as erotic as Bearden’s bold cuts of paper, which represent turbulent waters with subtle texture and a sense of fluid motion providing a rhythm to his artistic composition.
The exhibition also contains a collage from Bearden’s 1968 Cotton Field series, a 1946 series of ink washed drawings based on Homer’s, The Iliad and watercolors reprising Bearden’s A Black Odyssey collages. The latter again call to mind Bearden’s love of jazz and its influence on his artwork. Variations on a musical piece are very common in jazz and often results in very distinct renderings on the same brilliant theme. Bearden accomplished the sentiment of a jazz reprise in these collage detailed watercolors, created in St. Maarten with exhibition catalogs as reference as he did not transport the large originals to the island.
When I was an honor student, I obediently read every piece of literature required and will honestly admit that epic Greek poetry never really resonated with me. Had I been exposed to Bearden’s drawings, collages and watercolors; I definitely would have been more engaged and intrigued with the universal tales. I am inspired to re-read both epic Greek poems attributed to Homer, as Bearden’s work reminds me that their themes continue to resonant in current events.
This exhibition is marvelously produced through a collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES), the Romare Bearden Foundation, DC Moore Gallery and the exhibition curator, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and founder of the Center for Jazz Studies, Robert G. O’Meally.
Admission to the Amon Carter is free. Take advantage of this, as A Black Odyssey really is a show you must visit…multiple times! You can even prepare for your visit by downloading the exhibition audio tour app for Android or iOS, ahead of time. My only criticism is that SITES only produced the Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey Remixes collage App for iPad and not additionally for those of use with Android tablets who also want to remix Bearden’s collages into our own personal odysseys!