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When I hear the name of the American artist Marsden Hartley, I think of two paintings, Portrait of a German Officer (1914) and Adelard the Drowned, Master of the “Phantom” (ca. 1938–39). As Jonathan Weinberg has noted, both convey desire in the context of death (Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 114–40). In the first, Hartley veils that desire, and its companion grief, in a compressed mass of military regalia, although the sheer weight of the forms and the black background are pointed reminders of the somber nature of the event that precipitated the painting’s creation. In the second, Hartley wears his heart on his sleeve, effectively capturing—with a deep-red background, pink carnation behind the ear, and massive torso with its hairy chest revealed by an open shirt—the physical presence and tragic death of the youth Hartley described in a poem as possessing a man’s body and a young girl’s heart.
Thus, I entered the first of the four rooms of the exhibition Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913–1915 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) expecting a similarly somber mood. These were particularly challenging years for Hartley. In 1914 he lost both his father and Carl von Freyburg, the subject of Portrait of a German Officer; the following year he mourned the deaths of his stepmother and nephew. And war raged around him. Yet this room was not at all somber. Rather, hung on the walls were nine vibrant, light-filled canvases, with exploding curvilinear forms in yellows, reds, and oranges (Abstraction with Flowers (ca. 1913), Untitled (Pre-War Pageant) (1913)) and ethereal figures on crimson horses rising ever higher behind a luminous orange and red layered mountain shape (The Warriors (1913)). What Hartley captured in these works was the other side of war or, because of their dates, the pomp and ceremony and elaborate display that fueled the nationalist and militarist sentiment that led to the declaration of war.
The limited number of paintings in the room, arranged on light-grey walls, allows this effusiveness and celebratory mood to come across even more clearly. These nine paintings also convey a sense of Hartley’s artistic process, his experimentation with certain motifs, shapes, and colors over a short period of time. You could almost hear the paintings in conversation with each other, just as you could imagine those initial heated discussions between Hartley and French painter Robert Delaunay in Paris in 1912, or between Hartley, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, and German artist Gabriele Münter in Munich in 1913. While I knew Hartley had been inspired by the work of these early twentieth-century modernists, I had never experienced it as powerfully as I did in this room.
These conversations continue into the second room, where the funereal aspect of Hartley’s work comes to the fore, although tempered in some paintings by compositions that are more free-flowing, less compact than Portrait of a German Officer (unfortunately, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided not to loan this work for the Los Angeles venue, despite its presence at the exhibition’s debut in Berlin). In fact, there is a certain rhythm in the arrangement of the paintings, a change of tempo from stately, vertical compositions (Portrait (ca. 1914–15)) to those that radiate out in fits and starts from the center of the canvas to its edges (Berlin Abstraction (1914–15)). Tying it all together are the repeated motifs—the circles, crosses, stripes, numbers, and letters inspired by the military paraphernalia ever-present on the streets of Berlin. While there were more paintings in the second room, they did not crowd each other, allowing for a measured viewing of each piece, as well as a sense of their connections. In fact, there are only twenty-eight of Hartley’s paintings in the entire exhibition, and their careful selection is one of its strengths.
The second room also contains a video screen featuring newsreel footage of military parades in pre-war Berlin. Hartley’s paintings capture not only the shapes of the fluttering banners and prancing horses and elaborate uniforms, but also the energy and excitement of these martial displays. A different mood is created by another set of clips that follow those of the military parades, a mood echoed in the more subdued aspects of Hartley’s paintings. The clips are taken from a 1919 film by the Austrian director Richard Oswald entitled Different from the Others, the first cinematic treatment of homosexual love, one in which, as would be the case in many such films to come, the hero meets a tragic death by his own hand due to an intolerant and homophobic society. Hartley’s move to Berlin was prompted not only by his desire to explore the avant-garde art world of the city, but also by its homosexual community, which included finely clad military officers, many of whom, like von Freyburg, would meet their deaths on the battlefield.
The third room returns to the lighter mood and colors of the first. Here, except for a few military-themed canvases (absent the black backgrounds), are Hartley’s Amerika paintings, where the sharp triangular forms that appear in combination with other shapes in the first two rooms emerge front and center in a conflation of geometric abstraction and architectural specificity. Indeed, the triangle-as-teepee iconography seems to add an ironic twist to these paintings, as does the insistent use of red, white, and blue (American Indian Symbols (1914)), which appears to complicate the more romanticized view of the American Indian then in vogue in Germany. Hartley’s insistent combination of the abstract and the figurative in these paintings (e.g., the Native figures, canoes, camp fires, and teepees of Indian Fantasy (1914)) resists, even if only in a limited fashion, the more decontextualized aesthetic borrowings many European modernists made from Amerindian, African, and Oceanic cultures. Or perhaps I am reading too much of a critical edge into these works. As Ilene Fort notes in her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Hartley held his own romanticized notions of the American Indian as more “natural,” “uncorrupted,” and “authentic” than Europeans or European Americans (119).
Next to the three rooms containing Hartley’s paintings is a one-room exhibition of items drawn from LACMA’s permanent collection that point to several of the contemporary influences on Hartley during his time in Germany. These works include military portraits on the covers of the German publication Kriegszeit Künstlerflugblätter, issues of Der Sturm and Simplicissimus, prints by the German artists Franz Marc and Ernst Barlach, and photographs by the Americans Alfred Stieglitz (of Manhattan) and Edward S. Curtis (of American Indians), among others. After the tight thematic focus of the previous three rooms, I found this collection of disparate items a rather abrupt shift, although the content was helpful in conveying something about the world in which Hartley lived and worked during those three productive years.
The decision not to surround Hartley’s paintings with supplementary materials (with the exception of the aforementioned video screen in the second room) was ultimately a wise one. Normally I am a fan of intermixing contextual and artistic material, yet the impact of this small group of paintings on its own convinced me that, in this case, less is indeed more. The short introductory wall text and timeline in the first room provide just enough information for the visitor to locate the paintings in a personal life and a historical moment in time. In addition, high on the walls in each room are quotes from Hartley’s writing that provide a more intimate perspective on the artist’s struggles to find a new visual language, if not a new way of living, that could match the excitement he felt as he explored the contemporary European art world in person for the first time.
Those who want more information about Hartley and the Germany of World War I can find it in the clearly written and well-illustrated exhibition catalogue. This volume contains eight essays that treat Hartley’s movements during his European sojourn, the exhibition and sale of his works in Germany, his spiritual education, his correspondence with the Blaue Reiter, and his encounters with both the Prussian Army and the gay scene in Berlin, and in particular with von Freyburg. I found the several letters and postcards written by Hartley that were quoted in these essays particularly revealing of the sentiment that informed the exhibition’s paintings. What comes across directly is that all is not fair in both love and war, and that this unfairness, and the despair it evokes, can result in intensely felt and expertly executed canvases like Hartley’s.
Frances K. Pohl
Professor, Department of Art History, Pomona College