Harlem Renaissance sculptor Barthé showed black strength, conflict in bronze

Last year, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art offered a stellar show from a Harlem Renaissance master, Jacob Lawrence. This year it’s the Dixon’s turn with “Richmond Barthé: Harlem Renaissance Sculptor.”

Memphians can take in the work of this equally significant African-American artist all the way through Jan. 2, 2011, which is a good thing, since you will want to see this show more than once.

“So often we hear about the music and the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance,” says Dixon Gallery and Gardens curatorial assistant Julie Pierotti. “But it’s great to have the visual art piece of that puzzle and to be able to show that aspect of the story. (Barthé) was so involved with the culture and the energy of the Harlem Renaissance, you can really feel the music and the theater and the literature just by looking at his sculpture.”

Curated by Los Angeles Museum of African American Art founder Samella Lewis, the Dixon show assembles more than 30 bronze busts and figures by Barthé, whose classically conceived approach imbued his subjects with a serene dignity that countered African-American stereotypes of the time, especially images of black masculinity.

Born to Creole parents in Bay St Louis, Miss., Barthé (1901-1989) studied at the Art Institute of Chicago with the intent of becoming a painter. Instead, he became one of the preeminent sculptors of his generation, locating by 1930 to Harlem where he found acclaim and courted celebrity for the next several decades.

Tensions and dichotomies abound in his work, the outpouring of a Southern, African-American, gay man of the Catholic faith whose modernist technique was informed by populist subject matter. The busts of a Black Madonna and entertainer Josephine Baker, for example, become pensively kindred souls when viewed together. As Margaret Rose Vendryes observed in her excellent 2008 biography, Barthé: A Life in Sculpture, each work bears its own spiritual journey.

At times, the journey is unmistakable, as in the male bust whose fiat-like breath sings the history of black America into being in “Birth of the Spirituals.” Elsewhere, the symbolism is less overt if just as compelling. Positioned next to each other in the exhibit are two contrasting images of Jesus that speak to the religious core in both Barthé’s work and in the African-American struggle.

Neither image would be considered devotional art in the traditional sense, yet both comment on Christianity’s empowering role for generations of black Americans. In the huge bust, “Angry Christ,” stern eyes and a sharp jaw emanate wrath and corrective justice, while in the show’s centerpiece, “Bound Christ,” Barthé perfectly captured Jesus as fellow sufferer. In this and other works, bronze became the ideal medium for the artist, who found a warmth and fluidity of movement through the material that cast even the most archetypal subjects in vulnerable, ever-so-human terms.

As part of the exhibit, former Power House Memphis director Rehema Barber will give a noon lecture on Oct. 27, “Reflections on Barthé: Modern and Contemporary Depictions of Black Masculinity.”

“Richmond Barthé: Harlem Renaissance Sculptor”

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