A Cultural Kaleidoscope

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Romare Bearden's Odyssey

Unlike other renditions of Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden’s version depicts the hero of the story as a black man. The works are reminiscent of Matisse’s jazz-influenced, abstract cut-outs and his drawings of The Odyssey, but are clearer and more exacting in context. Sixteen of the twenty images composing Bearden’s series, “A Black Odyssey” are on display together for the first time in over thirty years at the DC Moore Gallery in New York City.

Bright, whimsical pieces of cerulean and scarlet paper swirl and dance across the frames, bursting with color and re-casting a tale of sirens, lotus eaters, and one man’s journey home. The technique is meticulous. The process is delicate. Bearden executed the cut-paper collages with such precision that one wonders why he chose not to develop the figures’ characters in full detail, often portraying them as silhouettes.

The collages are flat and two-dimensional, but are highly textural – consisting of layered sheets of paper that create effects of shadowing, movement, and volume. “Battle with Cicones” reveals Bearden’s impeccable attention to detail. The figures and landscape surrounding this violent encounter convey a fluidity of curves and softness of shapes that make the piecing together of endless scraps of paper appear effortless.

However, Bearden does not develop many of his characters. Shadows appear rather than human faces. This can be seen as Bearden’s argument that Odysseus is representative of any man, any struggle, and any journey. A Black Odyssey is also a metaphor for Bearden’s own life as a struggling artist after he moved to Harlem from the south.

The series suggests the timeless idea of the human experience through suffering, exploration, and overcoming obstacles. The internal and external plights of the black man allow the vibrant colors to fade into the background. Black forms add stark contrast and richness to the colorful series, grounding the other images as the idea of any man resonates.


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