Provenance: the artist; Samella Lewis, Los Angeles (before 1989); Chester Helms, San Francisco (circa 1994); John Axelrod, Boston (circa 1994-95); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2011).
Feral Benga represents the culmination of Richmond Barthé's study of the figure in sculpture, anatomy and dance in the 1930s, and his pioneering realization of an ideal male nude. According to Barthé scholar Margaret Rose Vendryes, Feral Benga, Barthé's "signature piece," was completed within a few months of seeing the Folies Bergères dancer Benga perform on stage during his first visit to Paris in 1934. Vendryes describes how Benga was an exotic celebrity--a Senegalese cabaret dancer known in Parisian and Manhattan gay circles, who had perfomed on stage with Josephine Baker and had even appeared in a Jean Cocteau surrealist film. Barthé used postcards, photographs and his memory to recreate a life-like representation of the dancer. The raised sword pose also recalls the muscular nudes of the famous Mannerist engraving by Antonio Pollaiuolo, Battle of Naked Men, circa 1470.
Grander in scale than its actual size, Feral Benga was one ot the artist's major achievements in his life-long body of work, a natural and sensual repesentation of the male nude, made at the height of his career. The sculpture was first shown at the 1937 Dance International exhibition at Rockefeller Center, and was later featured and illustrated in Alain Locke's seminal survey, The Negro in Art.The figure is also important as a groundbreaking evocation of both male and homosexual sexuality in early 20th century American Art. This is the first time that any cast of this bronze sculpture, the artist's most celebrated figure, has come to auction--there are only two bronzes known to exist from the 1930s casting. Vendryes pp. 66-69.