January 28, 2022

"How I Got It: Marsden Hartley's Portraits of Love" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on Hartley's Berlin paintings and his time in Berlin)

How I Got It: Marsden Hartley’s Portraits of Love

by Douglas Messerli

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)


    Yet after reading the catalogue’s intelligent essays by Scholz, LACMA curator Ilene Susan  Fort, Thomas Weißbrich, Kaitlyn Hogue Mellini, and others one can begin to untangle what might first appear in these German-influenced paintings as colors, shapes, numerals, crosses and esoteric images, to recognize them as a significant private iconography relating to Hartley’s utter joy of and fascination with the Prussian military daily on parade in Berlin and, more specifically, his homosexual love of the Prussian officer Carl von Freyburg and his close friendship with Freyburg’s cousin, Arnold Rönnebeck, at whose home Hartley stayed upon first arriving in Germany. Together, the three aligned themselves as what they described as a “beautiful triangle,” traveling together to Münich and elsewhere. While it is fairly evident that Hartley and von Freyburg did have a homosexual relationship, Rönnebeck’s sexuality during this period remains undiscussed; he later married his wife Louise and lived for years in Denver, where he served as a major artistic force, heading, for a while, the Denver Art Museum, and purchasing some of that museum’s major early works, including a Maillol sculpture, drawings by Matisse, and etchings by Picasso. Yet it is clear that Rönnebeck played a major role in Hartley’s infatuation with Berlin and is represented by personal aspects of his military costume and in other images of Hartley’s work of this period. Von Freyburg, who was killed early in World War I, the earliest years of which Hartley continued to live in Berlin, both he and Rönnebeck working together to memorialize through Hartley’s art, their dear friend.

    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.

     If Hartley’s earliest abstract works reference the usual transcendental images of Buddhas, flowers, mystical signs, and open palmed-hands, by 1913 in Portrait of Berlin he was incorporating military insignias and the image of von Freyburg seated upon a horse, a picture of himself the officer sent to Hartley. In The Warriors of the same year, the von Freyburg figure appears again, along with an entire parade of the gleaming “white knights” somewhat resembling a postcard image Hartley sent to his friend Gertrude Stein that same year. The same von Freyburg image would appear again and again, almost as a totem in his paintings of 1914: Portrait Arrangement, Berlin Ante War, and Himmel (1914-15). 
     In his 1914 Portrait of a German Officer, a memorial of sorts to his recently deceased lover, Hartley synthesized the personal elements of von Freyburg’s and Rönnebeck’s military costumes in order to emblematically portray a “picture” of the man he so loved. In a revelatory “key to the painting,” the writers of the Marsden Hartley catalogue divulge almost every element of the painting: iron cross, tip of the flag cover, shoulder boards, flags, lance pennant, cockade, cuff braids, helmet, tunic collar, epaulet, lanyard, sash, and spur. What seemed only as abstraction (and yet remains completely abstracted) becomes an iconographical memento mori of love.  
     It’s interesting in Hartley’s autobiographical description I quoted above, that he describes his memories of the soldiers on parade as being something “he got” (“this is how I got it”), as if suddenly, in passively witnessing the parade he was kicked in the gut or that was suddenly sickened in his stomach, as if contracting a disease, or, one can imaginatively speculate, as if an arrow had struck his heart. The soldier and his uniform were almost one and the same: a masculine image to be idealized and memorialized forever after. As he would later argue: “There is no hidden symbolism whatsoever in them [his paintings]; there is no slight intention of that anywhere. Things under observation, just pictures of any day, any hour. I have expressed only what I have seen.”

     Accordingly the other works he created during this period, the remaining works of his German stay of 1914-1915 (Pyramid and Cross; Painting Number 49, Berlin; Portrait; Painting No. 47, Berlin, etc) as well as his Indian compositions of the same period, relate much more closely to the landscapes and fantasies he painted upon his return to the United States and throughout the rest of his life. If these early works appear to us (and are in some respects) abstractions, what they are abstracted from remains transparent rather hidden. And Hartley’s art, despite its avant-garde commitment, retains its close ties with realist or representational painting.

     If that may trouble some art historians and everyday admirers who might rather have preferred to link Hartley’s works to the European avant-garde and the later American Abstract Expressionists, it also frees Hartley from the limitations that those links might require. Today we can more fully see Hartley as a post-modern figure, closer to Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams in his work than to Jackson Pollack or Franz Kline. In short, Hartley uses abstraction more as a tool to synthesize his highly emotional response to reality** than as an end in itself. Behind most of these Berlin works, we realize, are  flesh-and-blood individuals or, at the least, concepts of noble beings (as in the Indian landscapes) which it would have been dangerous, perhaps, to straight-forwardly portray in their bodily manifestation, but yet whose essence, nonetheless, could be fully captured in the abstract.

*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).

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