By Julie and Jon McKenna
Given that so many American families were shaped by emigration or the country's great westward or northward migrations, given that the United States has fought two Middle East wars in recent years and continues to send soldiers on Afghanistan tours – is it really so hard for a modern audience to connect with “The Odyssey?”
Romare Bearden apparently related to Homer's classic poem on a powerful level. One of the 20th century's most influential artists, Bearden was swept up in his own journey from home as a young boy when his parents left Charlotte, N.C., with thousands of other African-American families seeking better opportunity in New York City.
As he developed as an artist noted for his cubist and collage representations of black American culture, and as a writer, Bearden (1911-1988) became interested in interpreting Homer's works. In the 1940s, he produced a group of drawings of scenes from “The Iliad” and in 1977 unveiled a noted series of collage and watercolor works drawn from “The Odyssey,” created to particularly resonate with a black audience and experience.
Those 1977 works were scattered in their own odyssey after a brief exhibition in New York, but they have been reassembled under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Atlantans and visitors can view them (perhaps looking for their own lessons from Odysseus' 20-year quest to return to Ithaca, his wife and son) through March 9.
Bearden's interpretations of “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” are the focal points of "Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey," a touring show that has made a three-month stop at the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the campus of Emory University. The paintings and collages take up two rooms, and a third room is devoted to "Southern Connections: Bearden in Atlanta," a collection of letters, photos and other remembrances of the artist's personal and professional visits to the city.
You don't need to be an art aficionado to appreciate renditions of scenes you'll remember from studying “The Odyssey” in high school: Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship to thwart The Sirens, his shipmate turned into a pig by Circe (see Bearden's Circe in the top photo below), crewmen who lost their hope of home by eating lotus flowers. You may well be unnerved by a watercolor of Poseidon (bottom photo below), be lulled to drowsiness by the rolling waves above the sea nymphs.
Bearden's use of silhouettes evokes the painting of Greek vases visitors can see elsewhere in the Carlos Museum. His choice of black characters and primary colors (particularly the vivid blues for the sea and sky) bring to mind the Caribbean-theme art that frequents museums and living room walls all around the United States.
His choices of scenes aren't always uplifting (they depict chaotic battles as well as strange and beautiful creatures, Odysseus in defeat as well as victory), but they're unquestionably compelling. It's easy to find yourself imagining a 20-year journey back to spouse and son after Trojan wars, adventures and misadventures.(See Bearden's interpretation of the return to Ithaca below.)
In connection with the Bearden shows, the Carlos Museum is offering a variety of programs themed around the artist of “The Odyssey,” from storytelling sessions to collage and watercolor workshops to book club meetings.
Admission to the museum costs $8 for adults and $6 for students, seniors and children ages 6 to 17. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
"Circe" painting courtesy of Nanette Bearden and DC Moore Gallery, New York
"Poseidon, The Sea God" painting courtesy of Thompson Collection, Indianapolis, Ind.
"Home to Ithaca" painting courtesy of Mount Holyoke College of Art Museum, South Hadley, Mass. Gift of the estate of Eileen Paradis Barber, class of 1929.
Julie McKenna, guest blogger for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB), is a journalism graduate of the University of Florida and lives in Atlanta. Her professional background is in corporate and internal communications, and she also teaches adult literacy programs. Jon McKenna, guest blogger for the ACVB, is an editor at a business webinar company in Atlanta and previously worked as a financial journalist. He lives with his wife, Julie, and their two children in Northeast Atlanta.