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Return of Odysseus by Romare Bearden

Return of Odysseus by Romare Bearden, courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago

Born in North Carolina, Bearden spent most of his childhood in New York City's Harlem. In 1963 Bearden mobilized a group of New York African American artists in response to the upheaval of the civil rights movement. As a method of working together, Bearden suggested using a technique he had just begun to investigated, the modernist method of collage. Invented in 1912, collage involves sticking bits of paper, material, or other items to flat backing. For the remainder of this career, collage would become Bearden's favored technique, of which Return of Odysseus is a good example. This art form allowed him to put classical forms next to each other and emphasize the flat picture surface, but it also symbolized the coming together of traditions and communities.

The Return of Odysseus is the climax of Homer's Odyssey. The scene of Odysseus returning home is depicted in this collage. During the twenty years that he was away, suitors have overrun the home of his wife, Queen Penelope. The Queen tells the suitors that she is weaving a shroud for her elderly father-in-law, and promises to marry one of them when the garment is completed. Each night, she unravels most of what she had woven during her day. When the suitors catch on, they force her to complete the shroud. Odysseus's son finds out what their plan is and goes off with this news in search of his father. Together they then devise a plan to rid the palace from the suitors. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus convinces Penelope to hold a contest only he can win. She promises to marry the suitor who is strong enough to string Odysseus's bow and shoot his arrow through twelve ax-rings. When all of the suitors fail, Odysseus in disguise takes a turn and completes the task. At once Odysseus rids the place of the suitors and the family celebrates his homecoming.

Questions to Ask

What is the first thing that you see? This is the focal point. The focal point is what first draws your eye, something that stands out.

Bearden admired Odysseus's strength and cunning, as well as the loyalty to his family. Although Odysseus was not African American why do you think Bearden portrayed him as such in the painting? Bearden may have seen Odysseus as a strong mental model for the African American community, which had endured its own adversities and setbacks. To celebrate the connected cultures, Bearden made the figures African American. Their features even bear resemblance to the classic faces on African masks. What objects from the story do you see in this painting? Bearden took this subject matter directly from an early Renaissance fresco. Penelope is on the left side working on her weaving loom. Above Penelope hangs the famous bow and arrows. In the middle of the painting, their son strides into the room announcing something to his mother. The man with the bird is a suitor. The man in the doorway with a sword, cape, and hat is disguised as Odysseus.

What colors do you see? The minimal color palette of blue, green, and brown creates a somber effect.

What shapes do you see? What is rhythm? Do you think music inspires or influences his art work? Bearden was a great lover of jazz. Jazz was the popular music type of his time. In this painting he uses the geometric shapes to create music like rhythm. He uses different colored and sized paper to create the rhythm. The placement of the figures, some sitting and some standing also add to the rhythm.

Is this painting three or two dimensional? A tool artists use to make a two dimensional space look three dimensional is perspective. In this work Bearden, since he was a modern painter, he chose to work in two dimensions. He did this by placing broad, flat strips in uniform color next to each other, interrupted only by thin lines of white.

Activities for the Classroom

Activities Additional Kid Friendly Resources at the AHML are "Return to Ithaca" by Mary Pope Osborne, "Sirens and Sea Monsters" by Mary Pope Osborne, and "The adventures of Odysseus" by Neil Philip.

Additional information: Art Institute of Chicago®.

During the presentation play a jazz CD in the background.

Bring in construction paper, newspaper or magazine clippings, feathers, fabric, etc. and ask students to create their own collage or have them draw a collage out of geometric shapes.

In the collage Penelope is seen weaving. Try weaving with construction paper or string.

Have students pick a figure from the collage and strike their pose. Have the students draw the figure/pose in profile as show in the painting.

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