Why did Romare Bearden want to retell The Odyssey? And what was his aim in making all its characters black?
Colors, characters, collages and questions make up “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” a very large Smithsonian exhibition that stopped at the Currier Museum of Art in its tour across the country and opened a couple of weeks ago.
On view now through Aug. 17, the show of watercolors, drawings and bright collages offers Bearden’s perception of the 2,700-year-old story, telling of Odysseus’s 10-year journey back home after the fall of Troy. It’s a story of faith, will, bravery and tenacity, and it’s been told and retold countless times. But in this collection, Bearden takes a different route: here, he uses Homer’s tale as the framework to recreate his depiction of black America.
“The Odyssey, in many ways, was a metaphor for life,” said Currier Museum of Art Associate Curator Kurt Sundstrom in a phone interview. “It’s about Odysseus’s 10-year journey to find his home. Along the way, he’s presented with a number of challenges, and he evolves as a person through these challenges.”
Stories about journeys dominate literature, from Jesus to On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Sundstrom pointed out, and these journeys often work to represent more than just getting from one place to another. This is no different.
Sundstrom says you can see the connection: from being taken from Africa to surviving slavery, from northern migration to civil rights issues, African-Americans worked through countless struggles as a group in the centuries before these collages were made in the late 1970s.
“He was a brilliant writer and was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of art in general, a brilliant scholar,” Sundstrom said. “The work is never preachy, never angry, never lecturing people. But it’s extraordinary work with enough ambiguity that gives the viewer lots of open-ended questions.”
Born in North Carolina in 1911, Bearden grew up in Harlem amidst the Harlem Renaissance. He was influenced by blues, by jazz, and in 1963 he co-founded Spiral, a collective of African-American artists that included Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff and others, dedicated to the civil rights movement. It morphed from being an overtly political group to one dedicated to creating a new visual order, as described in the press release, with less figurative work and more abstraction.
Bearden, as described in exhibition videos and panelings, always insisted that art comes from other art, and throughout the show, you’ll find that, too; Homer’s story is narrated alongside each piece of art, starting with the fall of Troy and moving through with Circe, the Land of the Lotus Eaters, ending with his return home.
Even if you’re not up on your Greek mythology, you’ll find little difficulty following along. The collages, so bright and vibrant, are very simple and seem to jump out at you. Also, the installation contains a wealth of accessories including an app you can download on your phone beforehand (it’s free and comes with dialogue to go with each piece — bring headphones).
In his work, art comes from other art more physically, too; recent research indicates that Bearden photo-reproduced elements of a painting in the Currier collection by pre-Renaissance painter “The Follower of Meliore” and you can see the proof in three of his pieces. (These pieces aren’t depicted in this particular installation, however, there will be a pop-up show opening May 24 that demonstrates this.)
“To me, there was no parallel black or white artist in his generation,” Sundstrom said. “You can see him jumping from medium to medium with absolute ease. … He’s the one who brought collage to the forefront as a medium, and he re-invigorated it. No serious artist used collage in the way he did, and he did it in a way to tell a story.”
As seen in the April 10, 2014 issue of the Hippo.