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Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013

Romare Bearden’s Black Odyssey

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When it comes to travelers, Romare Bearden’s life itself was something of an odyssey. He traveled as a child from rural South Carolina as part of the mid-20th century northward African-American migration, in his case to Harlem. The theme of coming home, repeated throughout the American modernist’s work, is effectively illustrated in “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey” at the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW-Madison campus.

The show, a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition of 50 Bearden works, concentrates on the artist’s 1970s paper-collage depictions of scenes from Homer’s Odyssey through the eyes of an African-American. There are also watercolor-and-graphite miniatures of many of the collages and a series of line drawings illustrating the jagged themes of war from The Illiad, a collection Beardon did in the post-war 1940s.>

The landscapes and figures from The Odyssey, rough-cut from a variety of papers and colors and pasted with no regard to puzzle-piece precision, suggest Henri Matisse’s work. Some works are almost impressionistic, while others, such as Poseidon, the Sea God – Enemy of Odysseus, are more evocative in their size and detail.

Bearden’s personal odyssey may be that of all African-Americans to a greater or lesser degree, but his interpretation through the writings of Homer gives it an unexpected spin that draws the viewer in, only reluctantly letting him go to continue his own journey.

“Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey” runs through Nov. 24. Details: www.chazen.wisc.edu