Biography by Merle Guttmann

Bulawayo will never be quite the same place without him

said Basil Kaufman, at the opening address of the Marshall Baron Retrospective Exhibition, Bulawayo Art Gallery, May 1978, a year after Marshall’s death.

Student, Lawyer, Humanist

Born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia on 3rd August 1934 Marshall was educated there at Milton School. He achieved great academic distinction graduating from school with five distinctions, and was awarded a Beit Scholarship and a Southern Rhodesian Government scholarship to study at university. He also won a Rhodes Trustees Literary Prize for an essay on the musician Sibelius.

As a student at Cape Town University in South Africa, Marshall first demonstrated his humanitarian concerns during his tenure as a teacher and principal of a night school in Retreat which ran extra-mural classes for working black and other non-white populations. He was later to become chairperson of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS).

After receiving his law degree, Marshall returned to Bulawayo, the town he loved, to pursue a career as a lawyer and this was to be his home for the remainder of his life. He achieved marked success in his chosen profession and gained an enviable reputation in it.

He was a fearless and vocal opponent of Rhodesia’s discriminatory laws and policies and fought against oppression and injustice. As a practising lawyer he carried the struggle for a more egalitarian society into the law courts. At the same time, Marshall played an active role in the liberal Central African Party and Centre Party. In the 1974 General Election he stood as an independent candidate for the Matobo constitutency.

Artist

At the age of eleven Marshall showed the first signs of the artistic talent which was to be the dominant influence in his life. His small paintings of Cape scenes attracted the attention of the Art Master at Milton School. Increasingly through the years at school and university Marshall’s talent flourished, although painting at this stage of his life was still a hobby.

After university, side by side with his legal profession, he devoted himself to painting. He painted prolifically, canvasses of all sizes and in all mediums.

Ben Shahn, the well known American artist, a first cousin to Marshall’s father Ben Baron, gave Marshall an art scholarship on three occasions – 1966, 1967 and 1968 – to the Annual Young Artists’ Summer School at Skowhegan, Maine, where he received inspiration for his large, abstract canvasses. On his experiences at Skowhegan Marshall said: “The emphasis – when I was there – was on conservatism, but this only reinforced my feeling that abstractionism is for me the valid way of expressing myself in paint. I find it infinitely challenging to make the paint work out its own statements without falling back on images.”

He became very active and influential in the local art world which was particularly affected by his death. He was a personal friend to many artists and, in his capacity as a committee member of the Rhodesian Society of Artists, and Chairman during 1976, he gave encouragement to a great number of artists, as well as aiming for a high standard in art. He traveled annually in Europe and America and passed on information regarding the latest approaches which proved invaluable to Rhodesian artists who suffered from a sense of isolation. His own style of painting also underwent several changes and the contact with the outside world added stimulus to these changes until the abstract forms dominated his work.

His works were frequently exhibited starting from his student days in Cape Town and later at Skowhegan. He had 11 One Man Exhibitions in Bulawayo, Salisbury, Johannesburg and Pretoria, three of which were retrospective exhibitions after his death; at least five group exhibitions with a few other artists and his works were exhibited on all the Annual Exhibitions of the National Gallery of Rhodesia in Salisbury and in Bulawayo and on all the Rhodesian Society of Artists’ Exhibitions from 1968 – 1976. Some of his works were purchased by National Gallery of Rhodesia for Permanent Collection.

In the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition held in his memory in 1978 mentioned above, Jean Danks, Keeper of the Bulawayo Art Gallery wrote: “Marshall Baron’s death on the 3rd May, 1977, left a gap in the art world which will be difficult to fill. Sectors of business, public and cultural life are affected by this loss of a humanitarian personality who made a great contribution through his depth of knowledge and sense of dedication”.

Music Critic

At the same time as the onset of his interest in painting, Marshall became interested in music. He formed a music appreciation club at the age of 11 and later also formed one at university residence. Almost as much as painting, music became a dominant force in his life. His knowledge and appreciation of classical music was encyclopedic and profound and his impact on the musical life of Bulawayo was incalculable. “His regular critiques in The Chronicle on concerts and on the performances of visiting musicians of international repute would have graced the pages of leading newspapers in the major cities of the world and were literary masterpieces in their own right” said Basil Kaufman.

Marshall’s passion for music was indivisible from his artistic creativity and brush. He said of himself: “Music influences me greatly in the flow of colour and rhythm in my paintings”. And “I try to intensify people’s feelings about a particular subject or situation”.

Marshall Baron was also an eloquent speaker much in demand in Bulawayo. Basil Kaufman related at the opening of the retrospective exhibition that “Marshall gave an address remarkable for its clarity, forcefulness and humor. His penetrating remarks illustrated his wide ranging knowledge of the subject. Listening to him I remember so well being struck by his magnetic manner and the skillful way in which he discoursed on the theme of his address. This was typical of’ the man for whatever he undertook was done with great thoroughness and enormous enthusiasm…. In so much of what he said and did one was aware of his great compassion and wisdom beyond his years and yet all of this was pervaded by a delightful sense of humour.”

Marshall, with his multi talents, also featured in Critique, a television programme in Bulawayo dealing with aspects of the arts. He also designed and executed original sets for the ballet “Nnogawuse”

In his leisure time

With all his pursuits in his three professions – law, art, music – Marshall still found time to enjoy his recreations. He read profusely on many subjects, including a study of Comparative Religions. He loved to mountaineer both as a student in Cape Town and for some years afterwards on holidays. In Bulawayo he used to do an hour of yoga daily, and was excellent at standing on his head. He also became a long distance runner, running on his own, or with a friend, in the Matopos Hills and always accompanied by his four dogs.

And in summing up

Marshall was blessed with rare and singular talents in so many fields. He died very young but he lived a very full and vigourous creative life and lavished without restraint and with passion his talents on the city where he was born, bred, and worked in and which he loved so much.

August 19, 2008