THE TENTH ARCHIVES | VOLUME FIVE
WHAT’S NOT IN MY BOOK ON BARTHÉ
MARGARET ROSE VENDRYES
PHOTOGRAPHS by BRON MOYI at THE AMISTAD RESEARCH CENTER
It was tangential to the story I had permission to tell. At least that was how I settled it in my mind in 1994 when I was given permission and funding to research and write about James Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) and his art. And I did that in the form and using an art historian’s methods. I spent three years completing the dissertation, which was lengthy. Like telephones with cords, some of those methods are becoming, or are already, obsolete. The book would be a different project. The book will be a good read for more than academics.
Because it was Barthé, whose story was accessible in survey texts on African-American art (a category that was still emerging when I began), but had not been told in any depth or, as I would discover, with much verifiable information. Those tangential details have haunted me since I placed them in an acid-free box and stored them in the back of my closet. The one box that I did not send to The Amistad Research Center in New Orleans along with the rest of my research files for Barthé, A Life in Sculpture (2008). If you do the math, I had been carrying Barthé around in my head, among other places, for fourteen years. I thought sending my files to accompany Barthé’s papers in New Orleans was a fitting way to open the door to others who might want to revisit his life, and undoubtedly revise my research. That’s what happened to deceased art stars. Currently, it happens to living ones too.
Barthé, A Life in Sculpture is not a biography. I am not a biographer. If I were, the details I am about to share with you would not have been judged tangential. I am an art historian. I wrote a monograph on James Richmond Barthé. Thank you academia for offering me a genre for the book that avoided the dreaded trappings of biography. In the end, everyone accepted the book as a biography anyway. So, here’s what I found out about his life that is missing from the monograph that should bring it, in my estimation, closer to what a biography should reveal. However, I am dispersing with names and illustration details and such to share fact-based information I gather over the years. In this moment, you will have to trust me.
From the start, I found my “read” of Barthé was different from those whose work I read first during my research. Keep in mind, Barthé died before I began learning about him. To be honest, I would have preferred a painter as my subject, but Barthé had all the other characteristics I was after in a topic: African American, figurative work, homosexual, master of his/her craft. Barthé was all of that in a painter who became a sculptor who wanted very much to paint. I think I got that across in my book. To me, Barthé was not naturally modest as others described him. But, the more I read about the literati of his era, the clearer it became that they had no choice but to appear modest. Even a slight show of arrogance was risky for an African American hoping to enter the Euro-American mainstream. When the Black Power movement’s mantra “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” burst on the scene, Barthé was living abroad. He wrote in 1968, “Black art sounds like voodoo to me.” Like many creative people of his generation, black was a color. Being referred to as black made Barthé uncomfortable even though he believed brown-skinned people were beautiful.
Being Negor and gay had its good and less-than-good moments for Barthé. He quickly connected with a network of gays and lesbians shortly after arriving in New York City in 1929. It was not difficult since key figures in the New Negro Arts movement were homosexual. In short order, Harold Jackman wrote to his friend and companion Countee Cullen that “the sculptor from Chicago” was on the scene. Barthé’s deep-seated spirituality, and his trust in those able to see into the future, created a life lived in anticipation of events yet to come, but believed to be inevitable. He was a man who made wishes and dreamed out loud with a charismatic demeanor that made those around him want to help him along this journey.
While living in cold-water walkups below Times Square in Manhattan, Barthé used his homemade plaster casts and the occasional small bronze cast in his studio to sell to lovers, friends, and acquaintances to remain solvent for a time. I learned of a large collection of Barthé’s sculpture accumulated by a one-time lover and kept by his that lover’s partner after he died. And Barthé was lucky, time again opportunities to make money would arrive in time to keep him from heading back to Mississippi penniless. He was also lucky not to hear how some who knew him thought he as an alcoholic. It was true that he liked his bitter Campari, but that he drank in excess is debatable.
The faded photographs of a savvy urban artist and then a bohemian expatriate living in a small village just north of Ocho Rios on the island of Jamaica shows us an adventurous and fun-loving Barthé. He lived with god-fearing, black village people who watched for unusual behavior. Unlike the autonomy he enjoyed in Manhattan, they took note and gossiped. Barthé was a foreigner who had the ability to buy property on the island in 1949. They called him “the white man up so” behind his back and Dr. Barthé to his face. Barthé believed he would eventually be treated as a native because he was brown. This belief he held until Jamaica became an independent nation. Out of many, one people. I was born in Jamaica. Were it not that my parents took us back there in 1969 and I completed two years of high school on the island, I would not be able to say that I knew much about being Jamaican. I can write here with conviction that Barthé was wasting his time waiting for that level. Most of what I learned that is not in the book happened in Jamaica.
Barthé hired help locally to tend his property (he was advised to get some goats so he could claim farm status on his taxes; he got goats), run his errands (he bought a car he called his ‘baby’, learned to drive, and promptly sold the car), and cook his meals and clean his modest five-room house. The house, handmade of indigenous materials, was already there set back from the unpaved road on the edge of seven acres dotted with fruit trees and flowering plants. Barthé had found his paradise. Expatriates named their estates. Barthé named his Iolaus after Edward Carpenter’s 1917 “anthology of friendship.” No literate gay man of his generation was unaware of Carpenter’s history of homosexuality. This was the one public gesture of coming out Barthé ever made. I saw him a gay man well before finding this information. One clearheaded look at the first nude Barthé exhibited in 1928, Tortured Negro, and the closet door swung wide open for me. But, the male nude is a fine art staple. Not the case for African American artists before civil rights movements broadened their subject matter. Barthé was daring in his overt references to Italian Renaissance nudes, but used them to reference black matters like the prevalence of lynching. Similar to Kara Walker’s treatment of slavery, lynching in the years prior to, and after, World War II was a diabolical spectacle. Even so, the few African-American artists who dared to address this travesty in their work received minimal attention from press, curators, or collectors. Tortured Negro is documented by one small photograph; the sculpture itself is lost to us.
Barthé’s identity as a person was also lost to us given what was in print prior to my writings. My advisor warned me that Barthé’s art did not offer enough evidence to identify him as a homosexual in my dissertation. More substantial, scholarly documentation was required. Mind you, the work could be justifiably described as homoerotic and his life could be rightly characterized as homosocial, but the man could/should not be assumed to be a homosexual. Two years of research made what I instinctually knew was fact. James Richmond Barthé was a homosexual. That is one important detail about him that my book did reveal. Had he been born after Stonewall, I fantasize that he would have appeared in “Paris is Burning.” According to eyewitnesses, Barthé could really dance. That, and examples of his attraction to dancing figures are also in my book.
What is not in the book? Barthé was a black romantic. He wrote of his longing for a black partner to Alain Locke while venting his disappointment that his roommate John Rhoden did not love him that way. This was a testament to his trust in Locke as well as how valuable it must have been for a closeted man to freely express such sadness. When I interviewed Rhoden in 1995, he made it clear, before I could ask, that he was not a member of Barthé’s social circle; that he was not gay. Further, Rhoden expressed how Barthé’s mentorship had little to do with his success as an artist. This is when I realized I had taken ownership of Barthé’s story. I was resentful. Clearly, being connected to Barthé during the height of his visibility was valuable to a young sculptor. The problem seemed to be revealing an alignment with a homosexual. Barthé is a passing reference in Rhoden’s story. In 1958, Barthé wrote that Rhoden “has hurt me very deeply.” It hurt me too, this disparagement of a relationship that existed in a big way for a time. I should have put this in the book.
Everybody knew, nobody knew Barthé was gay. His generation was unwilling to discuss sexuality; however, in urban centers discrete lesbians and gay men were tolerated. Some interested parties that I interviewed were sincere in their belief that an artist’s sexual orientation had little to do with their art. Usually it was on me to reveal that I knew he was gay when it was pertinent to our discussion – when whomever I was talking to was dancing around the truth while trying to tell me the truth. They were appreciated, but at times awkward encounters. Then, there were those who knew, assumed I knew, and put Barthé’s real story on the record.
I met residents of Colgate in Jamaica who remembered Barthé, but were too young to have been privy to adult conversations about his homosexuality. His was the town celebrity. Their parents suspected that Barthé was what Jamaicans refer to as a ‘batty bwoy’ like other expatriates who owned property on the island except Barthé was not white or wealthy, which were essential characteristics that kept the others safe. The scrutiny Barthé was under went deeper than say the goings on when gay British author Noel Coward had company at his estate Firefly only a few miles north of Iolaus. Barthé was a black man and when he hired a handsome young local to work on his property people thought nothing of it until Lucian became his favorite model. When the resulting nudes emerged from Barthé’s studio, there was the proof, just as it was for me, that Barthé was gay. What would be done about it was unanticipated and unfortunate.
Barthé’s mental and physical state was unstable before he permanently moved to Jamaica around 1950. The hope was that Jamaica would be a cure. The stereotype of the moody, unpredictable artist served him well especially within the circle of eccentrics he associated with on the island. He liked his cocktails and at times they were his only company at Iolaus. With all the ink that has been spilled over the value of splendid isolation for artists to create, Barthé was lonely enough to plan travel off the island often. His letters to friends and family are testaments. He wrote inviting everyone to be his guest at Iolaus. It was a remote, inland location that only a few visited. Those who went found Barthé in a charming place with few amenities. He prided himself in being the reason that electrical lines were finally run through town in 1954. Before that watershed moment for Colgate, Barthé lived and worked with the sun. The place was still enchanting after Barthé left and the grounds were subdivided and sold to allow for a poured concrete house to rise within view of Iolaus. While Barthé was in residence, there were no next-door neighbors, but people found ways to know what was going on there.
How Barthé convinced Lucian to pose nude for him will never be known, but pose he did for some of the most successful work made in Jamaica: Inner Music (used for the jacket of my book) and Meditation among them. A photograph taken at an exhibition of Barthé’s work includes Barthé, Lucian, and a life-size bust of Lucian was a proud possession of Lucian’s nephew. It is the only record of how these two men related to each other. Their fingers are touching on the table. Lucian looks terrified while Barthé was being the poised master artist. He came to Jamaica to reinvent himself and recharge his art. In the process, Barthé made some of the most tellingly homoerotic sculptures of his oeuvre. Lucian had expressed a desire to leave the island. He needed work in the U.S. and a sponsor. Barthé was eventually able to help him leave Jamaica. Lucian disappeared into the ether of the U.S. The bust Barthé made of him is lost to us as well.
Things were never the same after he was beaten. This information came to me via a phone conversation from Florida. This last-minute lead took me by surprise and left me questioning whether this belonged in my book. The informer was reliable. An assistant to the owner of Hills Gallery, Barthé’s representative in Kingston. Everything I had heard and read so far left me believing that he had left the island unscathed by the hatred and fear some natives had for homosexuals. Barthé had been physically assaulted and no one else told me about it. Perhaps he successfully kept it from them? I spoke with his closest confidants, people he trusted. Perhaps they did not want this truth to ruin his story, his Jamaican paradise. The sin of omission landed on my shoulders as well.
Question: How you could tell Barthé was a homo? A young Jamaican artist who Barthé hired as a driver answered this question with a performance. He stood before me to strike a contrapposto pose complete with hand, palm up, on the thrusted hip. That is how you can identify a gay man – a batty man. He told me that he would often drive Barthé to the boys juvenile prison in Spanish Town to look for models. It was clear that he did not believe that was what was going on. Once identified as gay, Barthé was instantly a pervert. His willingness to speak with such candor for the record helped me see Barthé in Jamaica with more clarity. What else lay between the lines?
Barthé was very aware that one day someone would take on his story (probably not someone like me) because he was an important artist. Others have written about him: a short article from a biography that never found a publisher and a big self-published picture book full of facsimiles of documents that have yet to be returned to Barthé’s papers at The Amistad Research Center. Neither author was able write of Barthé as an African-American artist who happened to be gay even though they knew. The desire, the passion, the meaningful way he treated the male body, especially the black male body, is the reason Barthé’s art is so arresting. I am convinced that Barthé made those nude figures to proudly step out of the closet for some viewers and remain respectfully closeted for others.
There you have it. What’s not in the book.
is undeniably, unequivocally, indisputably, irrefutably an African Diva – her latest gift, a painting series that merges African masks with commercial images of popular black women soloists. Whilst doing Goddess’ work she is currently the Chair of Performing and Fine Arts at York College – City University of New York and a preeminent scholar on both Richmond Barthé and Robert S. Duncanson. Dive here to purchase Vendryes’ book, Barthé: A Life in Pictures.
Based in New Orleans, Louisiana, Amistad is committed to collecting, preserving, and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America’s ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, human relations, and civil rights.