An Epic Journey
In The Odyssey, ancient Greek poet Homer relays the long journey of Odysseus, a hero trying to return home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. More than 2,500 years later, this landmark work inspired another epic project: American modernist Romare Bearden’s series of fifty collages and watercolors based on the story.
Yet Bearden offers his own retelling, setting the theme—the universal quest to return home—in Africa. As a sign in Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, a new exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art points out, “Bearden does not merely illustrate Homer—he is Homer’s true collaborator.”
The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition, which runs through November 24, presents the Odyssey works of 1977, plus line drawings, watercolor variations and additional compositions, a combination that showcases not only the tremendous series but also the artist’s powerful sense of line and interest in history, jazz and the individual’s sense of place.
Signage across the Pleasant T. Rowland Galleries, including some quotes painted directly on the walls, offers context and background on both Bearden and Odysseus. At the beginning of the exhibition, Odyssey collages, characterized by bold colors and strong, clean-edged shapes, hang alongside figural sketches. Beautifully fluid with a substantial sense of form, they offer an interesting counterpoint to the collage works.
But the collages are the stars of the show. “Home to Ithaca,” for instance, features a ship with full white sails gliding on a blue sea, past gray buildings and brown rocks. On the prow stands a strong black figure—the mighty warrior Odysseus.
“Battle with Cicones” shows an attack; with a red backdrop and all figures depicted in black, it’s an incredibly dramatic scene. Also powerful is “Poseidon, The Sea God—Enemy of Odysseus,” in which a large-scale figure with a black face and white clothes and wavy blue areas around him is enraged by mankind’s actions against nature and his people.
“The Sea Nymph” features water as well, but the effect couldn’t be more different. Swirls of blue, purple, green, pink and gray travel throughout the composition; a figure twirled in white pulls another figure deep undersea. As you explore this rhythmic piece, you may find yourself swaying and feeling like you’re also slowly sinking down under the waves.
Indeed, visitors to A Black Odyssey will likely emerge feeling like they’ve experienced the journeys of Odysseus, Bearden and perhaps one of their own.
Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey runs through November 24 at the Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, including details on a rich schedule of related programming, visit chazen.wisc.edu.