One of Romare Bearden's earliest journeys left an imprint on his artistic imagination. When he was a toddler, his family, like many other African American families, moved from the South to New York City's Harlem neighborhood. Bearden's new home became a gathering place for Harlem Renaissance icons such as Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington, who fostered his love for storytelling and jazz. A homeward voyage is also the focus of Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, 50 works from the late 1970s visiting the Chazen Museum of Art from the Smithsonian Institution (through Nov. 24).
It took Bearden several decades to develop his own take on modern art, which was heavily focused on abstraction during much of his career. He found an answer in collage, the medium for which he is best known. Though A Black Odyssey includes watercolor paintings and ink drawings, the textured collages are the most magnetic. These works recast The Odyssey, Homer's epic poem about a Greek hero heading home after a war, as a tale of black culture's struggle to survive and find its place in America.
The Odyssey is a familiar story, but Bearden riffs on it like he's interacting with Homer himself. As Bearden himself put it, an artist is "an art lover who finds that in all the art that he sees, something is missing: to put there what he feels is missing becomes the center of his life's work." He collages precisely cut pieces of colored paper with paint, graphite and shiny bits of foil, suggesting that stories are meant for embellishment and remixing. The Cyclops is a prime example of Bearden adding "what is missing" to The Odyssey. He makes the tale's one-eyed monster anything but scary. The creature waves an arm in the air as a red tongue pokes out of its mouth. It's more silly than beastly, more vulnerable than dangerous. But Odysseus thinks it has captured him, so he blinds it, incurring the wrath of its father. The original tale presents the Cyclops as a dire threat, not a child in search of a playmate.
Bearden channels the power of color in Battle with Cicones, whose soil and sky are the hue of fresh blood. Black figures shaped like the subject of Matisse's Icarus swing swords at one another. The motion in the image is palpable. Some figures fall to the ground or hang their heads in desperation. One bends backward, holding an arm to his face as an elephant tramples him. In the original story, Odysseus' crew become complacent after pillaging a town in a swordfight, then get slaughtered by their victims' neighbors. Bearden's scene depicts the first fight, but its ominous colors hint that trouble -- what "Odysseus" means in English -- is looming.