An idealist and a dreamer, Hartley’s work gained particular poignancy amid the realities and detritus of war says William Kherbek Marsden Hartley: Porträt eines deutschen Offiziers, 1914. Öl auf Leinwand, The Me Alfred Stieglitz Collection[/caption]In the year of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin is exhibiting works by the American painter Marsden Hartley, focussing on the iconography of Germany in the pre-war period. In addition to being timely, the show brings together some of Hartley’s most compelling works. It’s a highly compressed show for those of us used to the blockbuster aesthetic assaults of the London art world, but its tautness is a virtue as it allows the viewer to appreciate the rapidity of Hartley’s maturation.
Organised chronologically, the exhibition shows the Hartley of 1913 as the Blau Reiter fellow-traveller that he was, doing his damnedest to evoke the oneiric brushwork of Franz Marc and the amorphous, if deeply sincere, spiritual longing of Wassily Kandinsky. In the ring with such giants, the learning curve is steep. Without wholesale ruptures the following year, Hartley may have become a footnote of desultory proto-hippie-dom, but with the works of 1914, he becomes something much more – in a way, he becomes Marsden Hartley.
The “German Paintings” at the centre of the exhibition are works Hartley made in response to the relationship he forged with a German soldier named Karl von Freyburg, a future casualty of the War to End All Wars (Until the Next War). In these works, Hartley’s inclination towards symbolically-themed abstraction finds a concrete expression in the visual accoutrements of military insignia and national flags. Making works featuring the military aesthetics of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany was perhaps not the wisest career move at the time, but they bespeak the sobering reality of war, that very often the only things a soldier leaves behind are medals and ribbons testifying to the glory of the regime responsible for his death.
The exhibition helpfully presents a vitrine of relevant Wilhelmine military regalia to provide a key in further concretising the symbolism. From a painterly perspective, the works retain the expressionistic vibrancy of his Blau Reiter period, but bring a much tenser sense of colour and composition. The easy contemplativeness of his early works is subsumed by an ambivalence, even foreboding. In some ways they resemble Hartley’s Mexican landscapes and perhaps serve as a kind of preparation for them, a kind of psychogeography project avant la lettre. The personal narratives of love and loss are also profoundly realised. For paintings of medals and badges, they are supremely animated.
Such disillusionment seems to have played a role in sending Hartley on the journeys of his later life, and the final room of the exhibition hints at his interest in indigenous American cultures as a possible source for the spiritual wisdom he sought. Visually riveting, these works unfortunately provide about as much insight into the cosmology and symbolism of real Native American tribes as the guy in the feathered headdress from the Village People, but they are also prescient in seeking cultural antidotes to the rot that had infected the modernity “Western Civilisation” was creating. If, as T.S. Eliot, another artist whose aesthetic was in part forged by the First World War, wrote, man cannot bear too much reality, then perhaps Hartley’s appropriately titled ‘Indian Fantasies’ provided the beginning of awareness that another reality was possible, indeed it was already real and waiting to be discovered.
Marsden Hartley: Die Deutschen Bilder 1913-1915 runs until 29 June at Neue Nationalgalerie, Potsdamer Strasse 50, 10785 Berlin