A Sense of Place: Marsden Hartley in Berlin

By LIZ HAGER

marsden hartley, lighthouse

Marsden Hartley, Lighthouse, 1915, oil on canvas, 30 x 40″ (courtesy Christie’s).

Marsden Hartley was largely misunderstood during his lifetime. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the artist was either woefully out of step with or gloriously ahead of his time. Undoubtedly, much of this mismatch was the result of Hartley’s eccentric personality, peripatetic lifestyle, and restless experimentation with different styles. The cause of his art was certainly not helped by Clement Greenberg, who in the 1940s did much to sideline the artist through his dismissal of the place of the “Stieglitz artists” in modern American art. (Greenberg’s championing of  John Marin as the link in the stylistic chain from Impressionists to Abstract Expressionists had perhaps everything to do with his desire to unseat Stieglitz as the reigning monarch of modernism.)

Perhaps not so amazingly then, there have only been three comprehensive shows of the artist’s work since his death in 1943.  But Hartley’s early relegation to the dustbin of art history has been our gain. Unlike others of the Stieglitz circle (O’Keefe springs to mind) his work hasn’t been overexposed to near trivialization.  Thankfully, Hartley has been resurrected to his rightful place in the history of modernist art.  To the unjaded eye his work still looks way ahead of its time.

To be sure, the painter’s catalog is painfully uneven. His lesser work ranges from derivative to just plain uninspired.  But Hartley could soar too, and his best works still pack a punch that offers an unvarnished emotional view into a bygone era.

marsden-hartleye28094painting-no-47-berlin-1914-1915-oil-on-canvas-hirshhorn

Marsden Hartley, Painting No.47, Berlin, 1914-1915, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 5/8″ (courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden).

Hartley was deeply imbued with the Transcendentalist concept of “place.”  Though often referred to as “the painter from Maine,” the artist was actually an extensive traveller, a restless seeker of spirituality. It was Berlin during the early years of the First World War that coaxed the first true rays of brilliance from the painter, providing him with emotional and creative sustenance.

In 1912 the artist embarked on his first European journey, financed by Stieglitz. During his stay in France, the artist frequented the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, where he fell under the spell of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso.  In the spring of 1913, he moved to Berlin.  “I like its ultra-modernity and I like the calmness of the people.” he wrote in a postcard to Stieglitz (1/1/1913.) As he settled inspired him: “I cannot estimate to you the worth of this German trip—it has given me my place in the art movement in Europe—I find in this my really creative period,” he wrote to Stieglitz, shortly after arriving in the German capital. (Postcard to Stieglitz, 2/1/1913.)

The city itself was not Hartley’s subject; the intense stimulation provided by the city encouraged him to look within for his subject matter. Certainly, Blaue Reiter members Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, whom Hartley met in Berlin, deeply influenced his thoughts on spirituality and art.  However, on a visceral level, it was the masculinity of a capital city teeming with military officers that seduced him. Further, in Berlin’s prominent gay subculture Hartley must have felt a true sense of belonging.

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, oil on canvas, 68 1/4 x 41 3/8 ” (courtesy: Metropolitan Museum; Alfred Stieglitz collection).

The outbreak of war in August of 1914 and the subsequent loss on the Western Front of his close friend and probable lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, threw Hartley into deep grief. The artist discarded an existing project and began pouring his feelings onto 12 canvases. Known as the “War Motif” series, this body of work would become his passionate memorial to von Freyburg and, by extension, to the generation of men who surrendered their lives in the trenches. Contemporary Wilfred Owen equally captured the sentiment of sacrificial love in his poem Greater Love: “Till the fierce Love they bear/Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.”

The horrors of trench warfare were still to come as Hartley began his project in late 1914. In the first year of the Great War, armies went to battle as they had for centuries, with pageantry and fanfare. Hartley’s iconography—Germanic flags, company ensigns, mystical numbers, von Freyburg and his own initials, the Iron Cross—perfectly captures the essence of the 19th century military, while the abstract jumble of forms mirrors the chaos that the closely-connected Europeans must have felt in those years.  Rendered in flatly colored forms and energetic brushstrokes, these paintings still look altogether more modern than most other American work of the time.

Perhaps then the true genius of the Berlin paintings is that they at once capture an old world dissolving sorrowfully into history and herald a dynamic modern world to come.

* * *

In December 1915, amid the growing tensions between Germany and America, Hartley was forced to leave Berlin. Re-entry into American culture was difficult for him, not in the least because the subject matter of his “War Motif” paintings was interpreted as glorifying the German cause, causing many to question his patriotism.

Wider Connections

Alfred Stieglitz portrait of Hartley

Peter Schjeldhal on Marsden Hartley in The New Yorker

Marsden Hartley & American Modernism

Roberta Smith—Marsden Hartley’s World

My Dear Stieglitz—The Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz

Pat Barker—Regeneration

First World War Poetry

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3 Responses to “A Sense of Place: Marsden Hartley in Berlin”

  1. He is one of my favorite painters from that period. You are right that his work can be very uneven but when he’s “on,” he’s fantastic. I think that some of this pieces don’t work very well in reproduction; when I saw some of them in person in NY years ago, I was struck at how much more beautiful they were than in the huge, coffee table book I had on him. Arthur Dove is the same way; the works look clunky and dead on the page but are simply gorgeous in person.

  2. i really like that. thanks for sharing :)

  3. My favorite one is

    Landscape, New Mexico

    (1922-1923)

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