‘Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey’ at Columbia University

From Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

While thousands traipsed to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to view Henri Matisse’s epoch-making Cut-Outs, fewer made it to Morningside Heights to enjoy the equally charming collages of Romare Bearden. There are similarities and differences, though the works of both artists gladden the heart. Matisse’s work simply celebrates color and shape and sresses the pleasure of surrounding oneself with beauty. Bearden chose the story of Homer’s Odyssey to illustrate African-Americans’ struggle to become respected U.S. citizens.

During my Jewish childhood in anti-Semitic Germany there was no TV, highly visible sports teams, or other distractions. Homer’s Greek hero tales were a crucial part of my life. I knew that it took Odysseus ten years to return from vanquished Troy, located in what is now Turkey, to Ithaca, his hometown. I was very familiar with the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, Poseidon, the ruler of the oceans, Circe, a seductress, and the other trials he underwent as he and his faithful crew voyaged home.

From Romare Bearden's A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

From Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

Romare Bearden’s series faithfully adheres to Homer’s story. His collages are small and detailed. Bearden is a master colorist. Specific colors dominate each work. White is used sparingly. Figures and animals, cut out of black paper, are silhouetted against vivid primary colors that impart a joyous Mediterranean or Caribbean air to his collages, even though the depicted events might be scary. Compositions vary. Sometimes a large battling group fills the canvas; sometimes it is occupied by a single figure. Poseidon awes the viewer with his black face, slit eye, protruding teeth; his famous trident bisecting the entire image. Circe too, seductively dressed in multicolored robes, and accompanied by a lion, a snake, and two birds is alluring and scary. Odysseus, however, manages to survive the ordeals and returns home chastened but unvanquished.

Like his near contemporary Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden is a powerful storyteller, narrating tales of African-American life in delicious small images. Both artists dispensed with details. During their formative years both lived in Harlem. Lawrence became famous early in his life when MoMA and the Phillips Collection in Washington bought and divided his 60-picture migration series. To celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Migration, MoMA will exhibit the entire reunited series from April 3 to September 7, 2015.

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