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The Mythical Realm of Richmond Barthe.

Barthe: A Life in Sculpture

by Margaret Rose Vendryes

University Press of Mississippi 229 pages (illustrated), $40.

RICHMOND BARTHE was a gay African-American sculptor and leading light of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930's. He gained critical acclaim for his public works, including the Toussaint L'Ouverture Monument in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a figure of the actress Rose McClendon for Frank Lloyd Wright's path-breaking home, Fallingwater.

Margaret Rose Vendryes' new book is the first comprehensive examination of Barthe's work, allowing us to re-evaluate his contribution to American art. The author herself rethinks Barthe's significance in art history in light of his homosexuality. To be sure, his sexual orientation contributed to his alienation from the African-American community despite the praise he won for it during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. The first out black man to produce a body of work that celebrates his sexuality, Barthe's sculpture is finally being given the scholarly attention it so rightly deserves.

Although he was never completely forgotten and is consistently cited as an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, his work never received the critical scrutiny it merited. This may be in part because of forbidden pleasures associated with the sexual allure of black nude males in art. Further, the erotic implications of his art made a puritanical and racist America uncomfortable, which also contributed to his marginalization. Thus it appears his homosexuality was a reason for his descent into obscurity in the late 1940's.


Richmond "Jimmie" Barthe came from French, Spanish, Native American, and African roots. He grew up in Mississippi, where racism was a fact of life. He was a bright boy with an active imagination, and by the age of twelve he was already winning awards for his drawings. First introduced to 19th-century painting in New Orleans, where he served as a houseboy to a wealthy family, he developed a lifelong interest in Greek and Roman mythology. While in New Orleans he met Lyle Saxon, a well-known gay writer and journalist who hosted an international salon in his French Quarter residence. Jimmie's talents quickly brought him recognition, and his local church raised enough money to send him to art school for two semesters. His choices were limited, since the only two art schools accepting African-American students were the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Barthe" opted for Chicago, where he found work as a waiter to supplement his income. There he met Alain Locke, who was physically attracted to him and promoted his work. Unfortunately for Locke, the beautiful young artist was in love with an actor, Richard Bruce Nugent, who was a cast member in Dubose Heyward's play Porgy. However, Barthe's affair with Nugent was short-lived.

Barthe moved to New York City in 1930, where his growing reputation brought him new commissions and praise. He became part of A'Leila Walker's "Dark Tower" gatherings, where gay black and white people mingled. Ardent "negrophiles," including the gay photographer Carl Van Vechten, were enamored of the man and went into raptures over his work. To improve his understanding of dramatic gesture, Barthe studied with a member of Martha Graham's dance company. His sculpture The African Dancer, which was inspired by the Senegalese dancer Feral Benga, was purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Barthe's nude, undulating black males encoded a masculinity that was gay, virile, and vulnerable at a time when many whites viewed African-American men as dangerously oversexed brutes. In 1935, his work was included in a show of African-American art at the Museum of Modern Art

For all his fame, Barthe still hadn't found a life partner. Most of his relationships were momentary and one-sided. During the 1930's, he met Kenneth Macpherson and his African-American lover Jimmie Daniels. Macpherson was married to Bryher (a Jc.a. Annie Winifred Ellerman), the lesbian novelist, poet, memoirist, and magazine editor. Her father was the ship owner and financier John Ellerman, who was the richest Englishman who had ever lived. Bryher was the imagist poet Hilda Doolittle's lover. She footed the bills for Macpherson and many other artistic and literary enterprises, including Sylvia Beach's Shakesphere and Company. Impressed with Barthe's sculptures, Bryher purchased five of them and then created a $5,000 trust fund, which helped to support Barthe for the rest of his life.

During the 1940's, Barthe' turned to boxing as a source of inspiration. Sports allowed him to confront the "construction of masculinity in relation to violence, sexuality and resistance." In 1945, he created his image of "dark rapture" entitled Fallen Aviator. This was his only work directly related to the Second World War. It had been commissioned for an African-American pilot who had trained at Tuskegee and crashed trying to lift off. It's a touching tribute to ambition and defeat. In it, he combines ancient iconography with contemporary imagery to create a boldly erotic image. The figure symbolizes homosexual desire coupled with freedom through death. Unlike Icarus, Barthe's Fallen Aviator cannot even get off the ground.

In many ways, Fallen Aviator symbolizes Barthe's own life. In 1949, he moved to Jamaica, which turned out to be less than paradisiacal, as he was always regarded as a stranger, He began painting and discovered that he was not a very good at it. In middle life, he experienced bouts of mental illness that were not helped by his poverty and isolation. In a self-portrait titled The Sad Clown, completed in 1953, the artist depicts himself as a joke. His health deteriorated and he broke out in nervous rashes. He had no money to pay doctors and he was unable to work. By 1959, he suffered from chronic insomnia and took tranquilizers to deal with his out-of-control rages. Surrounding himself with Africans in Jamaica, he felt estranged from their culture. He made a living by catering to tourists and fellow expatriates. The loss of his celebrity status took a toll and he fell into a prolonged depression. After a bout of severe paranoia, his brother had him committed to Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York. During the years he was there, a new generation of African-American art lovers rediscovered his work, which seems to have rejuvenated him.

Barthe' returned to Jamaica in 1969, but soon moved to Florence, Italy. Once there, he found himself overwhelmed by Italy's sculptural legacy, but he continued trying to work. In 1971, Actor's Equity commissioned him to do a bust of Paul Robeson as Othello. Frustrated by his inability to get the likeness he desired, he fled to Paris in search of inspiration. For a period, he seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth until eventually finding his way, starving and delusional, to the American Hospital in Paris. His old friends gathered their resources to help him get back on his feet. Fortunately, he had a standing invitation to live in Oakland, California, which he now accepted. In 1975, he moved to Pasadena. In 1976, his luck improved when curators at the L.A. County Museum of Art included his work in "Two Centuries of Black American Art." Young African-American artists hungry for role models wanted to know about his life. He was interviewed and treated like a national treasure. Barthe was able to live out his life among people who treated him like an elder statesman and a sage. He died on March 6,1989, in Pasadena.

Cassandra Longer is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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Title Annotation:Barthe: A Life in Sculpture
Author:Langer, Cassandra
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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