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Romare Bearden’s ‘Odyssey’ at the Amon Carter

Poseidon, the Sea God – Enemy of Odysseus (left) and Circe, the goddess-sorceress (right)

The artist Romare Bearden is famous for his bold, brightly colored collages. But they’re most often portraits of jazzy Harlem nightlife or images from his dirt-poor, North Carolina childhood  — those are what made his reputation. But the Amon Carter Museum has a new show of Bearden’s artworks — and they’re illustrations of Homer’s Odyssey. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports this is not such a change of pace.

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Romare Bearden once advised a younger artist to become a blues singer. But the painter had to use his canvas for his song. Bearden said, “You improvise. You find the rhythm and catch it good and structure it as you go along. Then the song is you.”

In the opening of The Odyssey, Homer, the poet, prays to his muse to help him sing the song of Odysseus, the story of the wily Greek warrior’s struggles to return home after the Trojan War. Thinking of The Odyssey as a blues song or a jazz standard, therefore, is not such a radical move. Bearden is simply improvising on a classic tune.

Shirley Reece-Hughes is assistant curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter: “Bearden always operated in that manner, looking at jazz and thinking about that improvisational quality. And to a certain extent, he is riffing And that improvisational quality manifests in the way that Bearden re-interprets Homer’s Odyssey in new ways.”

The Amon Carter exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian, based on the original 1977 gallery show of Bearden’s Homeric collages and watercolors. It was curated by Robert O’Meally, a Columbia University professor who specializes in jazz in American literature (as in his book, The Jazz Cadence in American Culture). For O’Meally, the influence of jazz can be seen throughout Bearden’s work — in its use of improvisation and rhythm and in the ways Bearden makes the original material his own.

Bearden’s most striking, basic re-interpretation is making the Odyssey a black Odyssey. All the characters, humans and gods, are jet-black. But it’s more than a change in color. When Bearden created this series in 1977, historians were just beginning to consider how much North African influence there was in The Odyssey – in what would become the Afro-centric vs. Euro-centric debates.

There have always been African characters in Homer’s epic. Eurybates, for instance — a favorite among Odysseus’ crew — is described as dark-complexioned and wooly-haired. But now, scholars began tracking wider African influences. Poseidon (above, left), the angry sea god who is Odysseus’ great enemy, may have originated, in part, from Ethiopia. Reece-Hughes says, “Bearden knew about Poseidon and his relationship with Africa, and of course portrays him as an African masked god.” 

Other characters are given African-seeming treatments. Circe, the goddess who changed Odysseus’ crew into pigs (above, right), becomes a ‘conjure woman,’ like a voodoo queen, commanding snakes and birds. There are geometric, African patterns in the fabrics the characters wear, there are mosques in the landscapes. The overall effect isn’t rooted in a specific locale — it looks African, Caribbean, African-American. If anything, it’s the African Diaspora universalized.

The Odyssey is a tale of troubles and longing and endurance – much like the blues. It’s also a story about trying to get home. In fact, Bearden had returned home to North Carolina the year before he started work on his black Odyssey.

“I think that’s part of it too,” says Reece-Hughes, “that sense of going back home and that questioning of what is home. What does home really mean? Is it a physical place? Is it a place in the mind?”

But the primary transformation Bearden brings to Homer is his sheer, vibrant color. The effect is like seeing those digital recreations of ancient Greek statues scientists have devised. The Dallas Museum of Art is hosting a show of classic Greek sculptures from the British Museum called The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece. These are the white, clean, muscular stone figures we all know. But we’ve also known for years there are bits of pigment on such statues. Recently, scientists have used those as guides to recreate how some of them once looked – with yellow robes and brown hair and flaming-red capes. The effect is startling – the figures are suddenly vivid and three-dimensional.

In his collages, Bearden does something of the same in two-dimensions with his great blocks and splashes of blue and orange. He may have inherited his cut-out technique from Matisse, but Bearden often combines boldly simplified figures and abstracted buildings with finely detailed textures, three-dimensional-seeming planes and surfaces that ‘pop out’ of the frame. And over the course of the entire series, swirls of blue or brown can set up a rhythm, becoming almost a symbolic force.

Says Reece-Hughes: “That’s also something brilliant about Bearden’s technique. Through cut-out shapes of color, he’s able to enliven and create a narrative that’s so strong it can carry you through the work of art.”   

 At the Amon Carter, this is the first time these works have been viewed outside New York City. The show runs through August 11.

  • Kim Kelly

    Can’t wait to see it!