December 17, 2014
Essay "How I Got It: Marsden Hartley's Portraits of Love" (on Hartley's Berlin paintings and his time there) by Douglas Messerli
how i got it: marsden hartley’s portraits of love
Dieter Scholz, ed, with essays by Ilene Susan Fort, Thomas W. Gehtgens, Kaitlyn Hogue Mellini, Alexis Pooth, Bruce Robertson, Thomas Weißbrich, and Cornelia Wieg Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913-1915 (Berlin: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) / The show I saw was at LACMA from August 3 to November 30, 2014.
Ever since I was a young adult, I have admired the paintings of Marsden Hartley, particularly the seemingly abstract works of half-circles, squares, crosses, and numbers, and the Native-American influenced works which have recently been gathered together in a show representing his “German Paintings” from 1913-1915. I don’t think I comprehended in these early days that these works had mostly been painted during his stay in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany during that period in which he had first traveled to Europe. I first saw these works, one by one, over the years at the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art (Military, 1913), when I attended a conference there on the early US magazine The Dial; the Whitney Museum of Art (Forms Abstracted, 1913); the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Painting No. 47, Berlin, 1914-1915), where my companion worked as a curator; at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Berlin Abstraction, 1914-1915); the University of Iowa Art Museum (E, 1915); and National Gallery of Art (The Aero, 1914). In 1985 I gained permission to use the image of his Indian Fantasy, 1914 on the cover of my publication of Johnny Stanton’s Indian fantasy fiction, Mangled Hands. And I recall attending a rather excruciatingly academic analysis of Hartley’s poetry in comparison with his art one year at the College Art Association with Howard and University of Maryland professor Sue Green at the University of Delaware.
I was delighted, accordingly, to be able to see many of his German works brought together in the show Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913-1915, co-organized by the Nationalgalerie, Staaliche Museen zu Berlin and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2014.
After visiting the LACMA galleries showing these paintings three times, and reading the excellent accompanying catalogue, edited by Staatliche Museen curator Dieter Scholz, I feel that these previous rather mysterious works are now fairly able to be read. In saying that, I am not arguing against the spiritual values that these works attest to nor disagreeing with Hartley’s own assessment that instead of representing a specific accumulation of symbolic content his works of this period arose from an intuitive abstraction that could not be straightforwardly “read.” As Hartley wrote of his New York gallerist and friend Alfred Stieglitz in 1912:
I am shutting out all superficial attachments and
associations—all ideas except those of mind and those
of the spirit. I find it necessary for me. I find growing
in me and I think to more purpose—a recurrence of
former religious aspirations—taking a finer form in
personal expression—so much for art and idealism.
(letter, October 31, 1912)
In a brief essay by Bruce Robertson, “Marsden Hartley and Gay Berlin,” the critic makes clear—primarily through the writings of the early gay pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld—just how open gay sexuality was in pre-war Berlin. A more recent study, just published in 2014, by Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin indirectly argues that the Berlin in which Hartley had suddenly landed was not just the most openly gay-friendly city in the world, but contained a community of individuals that in their definitions of and arguments for gay and other sexualities, helped to form “modern identity.” In particular, Beachy substantiates and reinforces the close relationship between the Prussian military and the gay community. Apparently, a large proportion of the ubiquitous Berlin-based officers and soldiers were involved in male prostitution in order to supplement their income. Hartley’s involvement with a military officer, clearly did not involve prostitution (Hartley had little money to even rent a studio and eat), but Beachy’s revelations substantiate the close interconnections of Prussian militarism with homosexual life in the German capitol. Particularly for figures who argued against Hirschfeld’s feminized vision of homosexual life, such as Adolf Brand, Benedict Friedlaender, and Herbert Stegemann, who posited, instead, a “masculinist” view of homosexuality, the role of the military—with its bisexual implications—was central to their gay identities. The great homosexuals of history, they argued, were highly virile men who led legions of soldiers and nations.*
Clearly, Hartley’s attraction to men shared much with these outspoken figures. For Hartley, it appears, in retrospect, the entire city, with its parading military figures, were central to his love and admiration of life in Berlin. As he later wrote in Somehow a Past:
Those huge cuirassiers of the Kaiser’s special guard—
all in white—white leather breeches skin tight—high
plain enamel boots—those gleaming blinding
medieval breast plates of silver and brass… There
were the inspiring helmets with the imperial eagle and
the white manes hanging down—there was six foot of
youth under all this garniture—everyone on a horse—
and every horse white—this is how I got it—and it
went into an abstract picture of soldiers riding into the
Certainly Hartley wouldn’t be the first young man—hetero- or homosexual—transfixed by the pomp and circumstance of beautifully uniformed males in precisionist maneuvers. For a 35-year old Maine-born and bred, somewhat closeted gay male, the Berlin of 1912-1913 was inevitably overwhelming.
*Although I have no evidence that Hartley knew of the “masculinist” or the Männerbund movements that had developed in Berlin by the time he arrived there (I have done no personal research on Hartley), it would be highly likely that he would encountered these groups since they represented one of the serious alternatives of the gay schisms of the period. Certainly, had von Freytag and others indoctrinated Hartley in these debates, it might help to explain how Hartley could have been able to later accommodate his outsider position as a homosexual in the US with his sometimes anti-Semitic viewpoints and his rumored desire to meet Hitler. Both the masculinists such as Brand and the Mànnerbund figures such as Hans Büher combined their often misogynist theories, arguing for the virile male and male superiority, with virulent anti-Semitism and the support of all male youth groups such as the Wandervogel Movement, members of whom addressed their often autocratic adult groups leaders (who, on occasion sexually abused the children under their charge) with the term Führer, and whose initiation ceremony began with a salute “Heil!” It is apparent that Hitler and his National Socialist party adopted many of the rites and practices of these homoerotically-centered organizations in establishing their organizational structures and appealing to the German military. Indeed, many of Hitler’s followers, particularly the early brownshirts, were homosexual. Of course, it is precisely those same organizations and the individuals behind them who were destroyed through Hitler’s personal homophobia. My comments are based on Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). Obviously, one doesn’t need to find a logical reason for such abhorrent viewpoints in a time in which anti-Semitism was common. (See also the essay that follows on Luchino Visconti’s film The Damned).
**This syntheized abstraction, obviously, also connects Hartley more closely to Picasso and Braque and, more directly to the Blaue Reiter artists whom he met in Germany, than to the Delaunays or Morgan Russell, the later of whom Hartley observed to Stieglitz that he found “dull.”
Los Angeles, January 20, 2015
Reprinted from Art Là-bas (January 2015).