Harlem Renaissance Highlighted in New Richmond Barthé Exhibition

Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum Hosts 22 Works from Innovative Sculptor

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    icon Feb 01, 2024
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The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum is now hosting a new exhibition as powerfully mesmerizing as it is personally revealing that highlights the artwork from Harlem Renaissance artist Richmond Barthé, featuring 22 works from this eminently gifted & talented, yet relatively unknown groundbreaking sculptor. 

 While also a contemporary of the iconic. Marshall Fredericks, after whom the gallery located on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University is obviously named, unlike Fredericks who was best known for his large monumental pieces adorning public art spaces globally, the work of Richmond Barthé was more figurative and deeply personal.

 With these amazing works on display through May 4th, the role Barthé played in the Harlem Renaissance was pivotal. He emerged as a prominent African American sculptor whose artistic contributions left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of the era. With an impeccable technique, his masterful sculptures celebrated Black identity, portraying the beauty, dignity, and humanity of African American subjects at a time when their representation was scarce in the art world.  

More specifically, what Barthé's works accomplished was to challenge societal norms and stereotypes, offering a counter-narrative through his artistic expression. Barthé  captures the essence of Black life and culture through his work, which at that time paved the way for greater recognition and acceptance of African American artists within the broader artistic community, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to inspire. 

“Barthé was (and remains) a great influencer of art history,” states Erin Pilarski, Community Relations & Marketing Manager of the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum. “Having Barthé’s impactful sculptures at the museum will no doubt provide great conversations centered around themes such as black history, dignity, humanity, racism, gender issues of the early 20th century, and more.”

Curated by art historian, Samella Lewis, Ph.D., this collection offers patrons & art lovers a rare opportunity to admire a broad gamut of the artists’ most elegant and important crafted bronze creations that depict dancers, workers, religious figures, and icons in Black History, such as singer Josephine Baker and actor Paul Robeson. 

According to Ashley Ross, assistant Collections Director at the Gallery, one of the fascinating things that distinguished Barthé from other contemporaries of his time is how similar his process was to that of Marshall Fredericks, yet how different their work was. “This exhibition offers a nice paring, because while both artists work ran the gamut of styles and types, they both followed similar processes. While the scale of his sculptures is much smaller to that of Fredericks, their techniques are both very similar.”

“Barthé grew up with a single Mom and to keep him occupied she gave him a pen and pencil to draw with,” amplifies Ross. “She constantly encouraged him to draw and although he never graduated from high school, he continued to have this love for drawing that was fostered by his Mom. Eventually other people noticed his talent, but he was rejected from many art schools because of his race until he finally got accepted in the Chicago Institute of Art based upon his artistic merit, even though he didn’t have a high school degree.” 

“He had somebody help finance his schooling who believed in him and studied drawing throughout his tenure, until one of his professors encouraged him to attempt sculpting in order to bring a more dimensional aspect to his drawings,” continues Ross. “Suddenly at that moment everything clicked . He went to school because of his talents for illustration, but what he ended up doing was transform those talents over into sculpture.”

When asked about the subjects of his work, Ross says his main focus was African-Americans.  “He focused on the black male nude very much, and also on powerful black figures, regardless of whether they were famous, which was something not necessarily being done at that time,” she reflects. 

“Barthé was showing the black form in just as much elegance as any sculptor would sculpt anything, with famous figures like Jazz era legend Josephine Baker,  and also some not so famous figures such as Feral Benga, which is his most famous sculpture,” she adds. 

“His strengths as an artist were showing people in movement - mostly a solitary person shown in their own power, or being beautiful onto themselves.  While he was using traditional bronze sculpting methods, his subject matter wasn’t being done and was innovative.  He moved to New York after Chicago and became a member of the Harlem Renaissance back in the 1930’s and ‘40s. While he’s done some large scale monuments and two-dimensional type facades, the majority of his work is strictly figurative.”

While he did receive much acclaim during the Harlem Renaissance, according to Ashley after Barthé left the USA he fell from public attention. “He struggled with mental health issues and was hospitalized a few times, moved to the Caribbean, and then moved to Europe,” she explains. “He was always creating art, but fell out of fame during that time. He returned back to the USA thanks to benefactors who brought him to California after his time in Europe, and helped pay for his apartment and encouraged him to make art the rest of his life.”

“Sadly, he fell out of acclaim but did see a lot of success early on. He was penniless when he moved to California and his own personal struggles contributed to that. He was never married and lived as a closeted gay man his entire life,” concludes Ashley.  

“He never openly came out, but if you look at his art or listen to him talk, you can see him being obvious without being straight-up about it; but he created works of many famous figures at that time and moved his studio from Harlem to Downtown New York so he could attend the theatre, which in turn gave him more commissions.  He also created a lot of religious figures, which was successful for him; and would create little pieces for tourists because he could make them smaller, which in turn would make the sculptures easier to sell to people walking the streets on vacation - things like Black Madonna’s, John the Baptist, and other religious figures.”

“The 22 pieces we have on display run the gamut of his work and stand as a testament that throughout his entire life he created what he saw.”

In addition to this exhibition of his work, the Gallery will also be hanging figure drawings created by Marshall Fredericks, to illustrate the comparison of how Barthe and Fredericks used the same process, which will also present an opportunity for members of the public to practice their own drawing skills and follow the process of going from nothing to a 3-dimensional object. 

Here’s a list of other special events & programming centered around this exhibition: 

February 1, 2024, 5-8pm •

Opening Reception and Gallery Talk For “Richmond Barthe: Harlem Renaissance Sculptor”

The exhibition artwork, music and gallery talk can entice participation and create an enriching ambience for enjoyment, enrichment, relaxation and socialization. We are experiencing the exhibition curator talk by Dr. Alex Mann and then listening to Jazz music while viewing the work of Harlem Renaissance figurative artist Richmond Barthe. Public and University community are invited. Free program. RSVP required.

Saturday, February 3, 2024, 1:00-2:30pm • 

Many Shapes of Clay: A Story of Healing book read and art activity

Melissa McCarthy, Saginaw Libraries, will read the book to attending youth and interact with them. Following the read, youth will use clay to make their own artwork to take home as well as getting a free book. Public and University community are invited. Free program.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024. 1-2pm • 

An afternoon with Dr. Rehema C. Barber Williams, Director Curatorial Affairs at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art. Dr. Rehema C. Barber Williams, Director Curatorial Affairs at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art will discuss artist Richmond Barthe. Public and university classes/community are invited. Free program.

 March 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29, Fridays at 1`pm: Specialty Tours: We are offering half hour tours this month on discussion of themes of women represented in Fredericks and Barthe’s art as part of Women’s History Month. Public and University community are invited. Free program.

Saturdays, March 2 and 30: Drop-in Art Activity, 1-4pm. This workshop is based on Barthe’s early arts training and use of easy-to-find art materials in the home like paper, crayon and pencil. Participants will use similar materials to create artworks then collage them into a larger composition.  March 30: As Barthe honed his drawing skills, he and his mother played games in which they decided to name the people and animals and insects that he drew. Participants will draw objects displayed in a still life and include the name of the object in the composition. The activity will include discussion how they learned to identify subjects in home and at school in youth. 

Saturday, April 13, 7pm: Angeline Boulley, Firekeepers Daughter author visit at Pit and Balcony,

Join us on Saturday, April 13th, at 7:00pm at the Pit & Balcony Theatre in Saginaw, MI for a book discussion and Q&A with author Angeline Boulley.  

Saturday, April 27, 1-4pm: Drop in Art Activity: Participants create their own comic strip character based on their personal interests. As he grew older, Barthe’s subject matter was people he saw on the streets. This later developed into creating comic book characters.

May 4: Exhibition ends

Exhibition Credits: “Richmond Barthé: Harlem Renaissance Sculptor” is sponsored in part by the Michigan Arts & Culture Council.

 The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum is located on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University, 7400 Bay Road, University Center, MI. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (989) 964-7125 or visit the Museum’s website at www.marshallfredericks.org

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