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Review: Romare Bearden captures universality at heart of Odyssey, at Carlos Museum

Romare Bearden: "The Fall of Troy." Watercolor and graphite on paper. Courtesy Jerald Melb
Romare Bearden: "The Fall of Troy." Watercolor and graphite on paper. Courtesy Jerald Melb
Romare Bearden: The Fall of Troy, watercolor and graphite on paper. Courtesy Jerald Melberg Gallery, Charlotte, N.C.

The first scene that artist Romare Bearden depicts in his Odyssey Suite is not technically from the epic poem, but from the mythology of the Trojan war: Odysseus as designer of the Trojan horse. In his Fall of Troy, an almost comically cartoonlike and serene Trojan horse gazes emptily out over the death, flames and carnage of the fallen city. The trickster-artist’s creation has brought a swift, conclusive end to the years-long warriors’ stalemate. A violent end to the war, it’s a seemingly apocalyptic scene, but here it’s also a momentous starting point — the first step in an arduous, individual journey toward restoration, completion and homecoming.

In the 1970s, Bearden — then late in his life and career and best known for his scenes of African American life — diverged from his most famous subject matter by portraying such scenes from Homer. Indeed, depicting incidents and characters from The Odyssey became a major artistic endeavor, and it was a theme he returned to time and again in multiple works across several media. An exceptional and compelling exhibition of these works — the only full-scale showing of this phase of the artist’s career since the works’ first exhibition more than 30 years ago — is currently at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum through March 9. Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in cooperation with the Romare Bearden Foundation and Estate and DC Moore Gallery. The exhibition and its related educational resources are supported by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Romare Bearden: Battle with the Cicones. Collage, graphite on fiberboard. Courtesy Currier Museum of Art.
Romare Bearden: Battle with the Cicones; collage, graphite on fiberboard. Courtesy Currier Museum of Art.

The late work of Henri Matisse was clearly an inspiration for the late Bearden in the use of paper cut-outs, silhouette figures, vibrant colors, and jazzlike sense of play, rhythm and improvisation. Matisse’s first published collection of cutouts, Jazz, may have been a special influence on Bearden, a longtime aficionado of jazz, and there may have even been an added delightful sense of an artistic cycle achieving a complete circle, with the older European artist, who had been so influential throughout Bearden’s career, taking late inspiration from the élan and vibrancy of the 20th-century African American musical invention.

An untitled ink drawing from Bearden's Iliad Series. Courtesy Estate of Nanette Bearden and DC Moore Gallery.
Untitled ink drawing from Bearden’s Iliad Series. Courtesy Estate of
Nanette Bearden and
DC Moore Gallery.

Bearden’s use of The Odyssey as a subject is not, however, as unusual or divergent as one might initially surmise. Earlier in his career, as works in a side gallery make clear, Bearden had already depicted scenes from Homer’s other epic poem, The Iliad, in a very different mode: active, frenetic ink drawings of human figures in battle, scenes of forceful thrusts, domination and violence — fitting with that tale’s focus on notions of glory, fate, waste, honor and vengeance.

But The Odyssey’s protagonist is an older man, and he is more of a trickster than a warrior, someone who, like an artist, gets by on wits, curiosity and inventiveness more than his strength or prowess in battle. In The Odyssey, of course, Odysseus is no longer seeking glory or victory in battle: he is seeking home, a reunion with wife and family and a restoration to his proper place on the throne as king of Ithaca. It’s an arduous late-life journey across the sea, during which the trickster-hero, whose name literally translates as “trouble,” must take on multiple identities (even becoming “no one” to save his men from the Cyclops), evading numerous dangers through the use of his wits.

In Bearden’s hands, the incidences resonate within the context of African American history: the Middle Passage in the 17th and 18th centuries, survival in slavery until Emancipation at the end of the Civil War, the Great Migration, the struggle to find and protect home and family (from those who would take everything) during Jim Crow, and restoration from exile to a place of dignity.

Bearden’s depiction of the perils that befall Odysseus — the danger of losing his past and identity among the Lotus Eaters, of making a difficult passage between Scylla and Charybdis, of surviving in a homeland by concealing his true identity — can also be understood as parallels to the heroic story of African American survival — a collective and ongoing epic.

But Bearden’s project here is not just a transposition of a “classical” story into an African American context or idiom. The work reflects Bearden’s broader understanding of art-making. Bearden believed deeply in the universality of art and myth as expressions of shared human impulses, dreams and archetypes. As he remarked in 1970, “I give every effort to give my works a universal character, and I feel that the meanings can be extended and reinforced by means of myth and ritual.”

Romare Bearden. Odysseus Leaves Circe.
Romare Bearden: Odysseus Leaves Circe.

For Bearden, The Odyssey, Matisse, jazz, art in general, all are taken as part of a shared human cultural heritage: they share a universality, something he embraced in his own work. Here, Circe is a conjure woman, Poseidon an African water god in a Benin-like mask, Ithaca like a lush Caribbean isle; Odysseus’ journey resonates just as much in the Middle Passage as it does in the Great Migration. The works don’t represent a bridging of African American culture to classical mythology so much as a reminder that there is no real divide.

The idea of anything, particularly a work of Western literature, being “universal” has fallen out of favor, which may be one reason why Bearden’s beautiful, lively Odyssey Suite has been so seldom exhibited intact. But this late work is crucial to understanding Bearden’s aesthetic approach to art. For the artist, connection to a sense of universal myth, ritual and ancient themes was a central aesthetic goal throughout his life. The Odyssey Suite, then, is no departure but rather a culmination, an appealing and distinct articulation of a lifelong aesthetic philosophy, and its exhibition together at Emory a don’t-miss event.

 

Click here to view more artwork from the exhibition.

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