Sculpture up close and personal

Reviewer: Janet Martineau

Venue: Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum

As a black child in Mississippi, whose father died in 1901 when he was only one month old, his mother provided him with his favorite “toys” when she was away from home working.

A marking pencil, crayons and paper.

At the age of 12,  his work was shown at a Mississippi county fair. By the age 18,  now residing in New Orleans, he won his first prize — a blue ribbon for a drawing.

With the aid of a minister, and with less than a high school education and no formal training in art, he was admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924. The pastor  provided the tuition at the institute and the budding artist  lived free with an aunt.

Meet “Richmond Barthé: Harlem Renaissance Sculptor.”

Yeah, we had not heard of him either. But this exhibition featuring 22 of his works, on display through May 4 at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw,  is surprisingly eye-opening and intimate.

We use the word intimate because the word sculpture tends to bring to mind massive, monumental, bigger-than-life and sometimes abstract creations like the namesake of this museum created.

Barthé did indeed create big sculptures, but this show focuses on his life-size busts and small-scale full figures of people. Literally, the viewers are face-to-face, eye-level with a head the size of theirs. And the ones without a case around them become goosebump real with their detailing.

And the also detailed full-figure ones connect as well the closer you get to inspect them.

Meet singer Josephine Baker, actor Paul Robeson, Barthé’s fourth grade teacher, a black Madonna, John the Baptist, a housekeeper’s nephew, two nude lovers in an embrace, a muscled New Orleans stevedore, a Martha Graham dancer, a mother holding a child… and Barthé himself.

We were lucky on this day to be the only visitor at the exhibition as a  familiar classical music piece played softly in the background, accompanying a video about Barthé. The rest of the world ceased to exist as we met all of these people he created in clay turned into bronze. We imagined conversations with them, existing in their day and time, visiting their worlds.

And we say eye-opening because as usual the Fredericks Museum  provides superb signage…about his biography, the Harlem Renaissance (a1920s/1930s a black cultural movement of creative activity using art, literature, music, dance and social commentary), and his unusual perspective about being a black artist.

Barthé, who died in 1989, is quoted as saying “90 percent of my work is of black people. I  want to show the spiritual side of the Negro, his customs and his culture and to interpret these in a way that would bring about a better understanding between the races.

“I hope that my people will look into my works and see a reflection of themselves. I have been trying to hold up a mirror to them and say, ‘Look how beautiful you are.’ My dream in life was to make my people proud of me and show them how beautiful the world is.”

By 1934, Barthé was awarded his first solo show at the Caz Delbo Galleries in New York City. His exhibitions and commissions were numerous, and his works were being added to the permanent collections at many museums, including the Whitney Museum and the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At what may have been the  peak of his career, Barthé moved to Jamaica where he remained for the next 20 years. He  left the Caribbean in the mid-1960s, moving to Switzerland, Spain and Italy, over the following years. He ended up settling in Pasedena, Calif.,  for the remainder of his life.

Below are two links to further information.

The first is a printed interview featuring comments by Ashley Ross, the assistant director of collections  at the Fredericks, and a list of special events and programming linked to the Barthé exhibit. And the second is a video of a short lecture filmed during the opening reception for the Barthé show.



The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 11am to 5pm. Admission is free.

Share this Review