Marsden Hartley

A Gay American Artist in Kaiser’s Berlin

In his search for a more accepting society, painter Marsden Hartley settled in pre-WWI Berlin, where he was enchanted by the military pageantry and the love of a German soldier.

08.10.14 9:45 AM ET

He walked in knowing he was beautiful, with his hard gaze and slightly feminine mouth, and I was struck. He had the Marsden Hartley T-shirt and I loved Marsden Hartley. He rode a motorcycle. These commonalities felt like a miracle to me. I realized when he sat down that he had made his T-shirt logo with a pen. It was not silkscreened. He’d simply written marsden hartley. He could’ve written anything and that was what he wrote.

Rachel Kushner, The Flame Throwers

It sounds like the name of a motorcycle company: Marsden Hartley. But Marsden Hartley was a 20th-century painter, slow as oil paint from a brush. An American abstractionist in the early days, at a time when this kind of art was primarily arriving from European painters like Picasso, Cezanne, and Matisse, Hartley was making spontaneous emotional compositions that spoke in bursts and shards of symbol and color. A restless American who rarely lived in one place for more than two years, he knew he was after something different. He left the U.S., seeking a spiritual and metaphysical connection for his work elsewhere.

I was surprised to come across this reference to Hartley in Rachel Kushner’s critically acclaimed novel The Flame Throwers—a story that follows an impressionable twenty-something conceptual artist in 1970s New York whose primary medium of art-making is a motorcycle. 1970s conceptual art was reactionary to modernism—pitted against the romanticism and anti-intellectualism of paint on canvas. Conceptualism exploded the art experience, made it an idea and experience, and something more than purely visual. Yet Reno, Kushner’s main character, admits to loving the art of Marsden Hartley. 

Kushner, in an e-mail, said the reference came to her while she was writing. Hartley’s work was introduced to her by the late curator Walter Hopps while they were working together on a “Berlin” issue of Grand Street magazine in the late 1990s, where Hopps was art editor. Hartley left this country for a short stay in Paris and then traveled onto Berlin between 1913 and 1915 on the cusp of World War I, making a series of paintings now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913–1915

Kushner remembers these paintings with their “shaggy and tactile and soft quality of these hard and bright tones—black, white, red, green, yellow, blue.” She visited Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer (1914) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I was just really awed by those works,” says Kushner, “and decided they were some of my favorite paintings of all time.” And—one day after working with Hopps on the Berlin issue—she returned home to her apartment on the Lower East Side to find a man she had befriended, a guy who, from what he had told her, “had this whole life as an artist in the 1970s,” now a homeless handyman working on her building, nodding off on her stoop on a heroin high, as he was wont to do, wearing a Marsden Hartley T-shirt. Not handwritten, but totally coincidental in that magical way that obscure topics tend to bunch themselves up in one’s life; multiples of goodness in strange heroin-tinged guise. 

Who knows if this 1990s-homeless artist who had thrived in some way in the 1970s New York art scene was wearing this Marsden Hartley shirt out of respect, irony, or simply because it was something easily grabbed off the floor in the panic of morning withdrawal, but in Kushner’s reimagining of the scene—this shirt does make sense. It was the modernists like Marsden Hartley—a man who merged emotional expression with abstraction and made works that were more than purely a visual experience, works that delved deep into complexities of gender, politics, and social norms—that gave the conceptual art movement its hook, an avant garde place of authenticity and mystery from which to propel forth.

Marsden Hartley left the United States in 1912 after a successful exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in New York, otherwise known as “291” for the building’s address on Fifth Avenue. Hartley was drawn to Paris after having been introduced, as most in Stieglitz’s circle were, to the works of Picasso, Cezanne, and Matisse through previous exhibitions at 291. In Europe he encountered other artists who inspired and helped him: Gertrude Stein, Charles Demuth, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, and others of the expressionist Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group from Munich. He began painting what he would call “intuitive abstractions,” and “cosmic cubism.” 

In a 1913 letter reprinted in a book of correspondence edited by James Timothy Voorhies, My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz 1912–1915, Hartley wrote to Stieglitz about the longings that through “tricks of circumstance have been left unsatisfied.” Hartley was a gay man experiencing pain that “grows stronger instead of less and it leaves one nothing but the role of spectator in life watching life go by.” After being introduced to a German sculptor, Arnold Rönnebeck and his cousin, a Prussian officer names Carl von Freyburg in Paris, he took them up on an offer to visit Berlin, where things were different, and, soon, the restless artist was living there.

At the turn of the 20th century, during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign, the cleanliness, orderliness, and seeming calm of Germany welcomed the wandering soul of Hartley. There was a Wilhelmine “cult of manliness,” as Dr. Patricia McDonnell puts it in her 1997 essay on Hartley and gay identity in Berlin. McDonnell notes that in his letters, Hartley reveled that “the imperial guard was in perpetual motion about the city, and their displays were intoxicating for him.” Berlin was “without question the finest modern city in Europe,” he wrote, and his new friend Carl von Freyburg summed up “a true representative of all that is lovely and splendid in the German soul and character.” 

Homosexuality had been illegal in Germany since 1871 under a law condemning “unnatural vice between men,” known as “Paragraph 175.” But a pioneering physician, sexologist, and gay rights advocate named Magnus Hirschfeld had been leading the German homosexual emancipation movement since the late 1890s, professing that homosexuals were a “third sex”—as right and natural as any other sex—and were unjustly discriminated against. According to Bruce Robertson in his essay for the Marsden Hartley exhibition catalog, “Experts at the time claimed that there were at least thirty thousand male homosexuals in Berlin.... Hirschfeld and others mapped the structure, culture, and topography of gay Berlin in the popular account Berlins drittes Geschlecht (Berlin’s Third Sex, 1904) and a number of more specialized sociological and medical reports.” 

A worthwhile addition to Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913–1915 at LACMA is a ten-minute clip of the “lost” and painstakingly restored silent film Anders als die Andern (§ 175) (Different from the Others (Paragraph 175)), for which Hirschfeld was a consultant in 1919. Hirschfeld is cast as himself, a sexologist advising the parents of a violin virtuoso: “You mustn’t think poorly of your son because he is homosexual. He is not at all to blame for his orientation,” read the title cards, “Your son suffers not from his condition, but rather from the false judgment of it.” It is perhaps the first film ever to present homosexuality as a “variance,” not an anomaly, as normal as green or hazel eyes.

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But back up for a moment—back to the beginning of the war—one hundred years ago. According to the catalog essay by Dieter Scholz, curator for the exhibition’s Berlin incarnation at the Neue Nationalgalerie earlier this year, as Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and Tsar Nicholas II mobilized his Russian armed forces to support Serbia, Hartley was marveling at the stillness and the “psychic tension which is superb and awesome” throughout the city of Berlin. Thousands walked in the streets calmly singing German folksongs. Others discussed in cafés the possibility of war. By August 1, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II was drawing up deadlines, reluctantly challenging Russia, and preparing the German peoples to be ready to give “blood and money” in speeches “from the balcony of the masses,” while also promising the German soldiers “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees” as they marched off into the fray.

The first trenches of the Western front were dug in September, and, on October 7, 1914, in the northern battlefields of France, Carl von Freyburg was killed.

After several weeks of shock and mourning, Hartley began a series of paintings known as the War Motif paintings. What Rachel Kushner described as the “shaggy and tactile and soft quality of these hard and bright tones,” twist and cascade across deep black backgrounds on canvas, dark as death. On a walkthrough of the exhibition, LACMA curator Stephanie Barron explained the iconography of this series, such as is seen in The Iron Cross (1915), with its eponymous hovering Eiserne Kreuz. Barron pointed to the number four, von Freyburg’s regiment number, and the curlicue of a red “E” for the Queen Elisabeth Regiment of Grenadier Guards of which Rönnebeck was a part (Rönnebeck was also injured early in the war, but survived). Target-like rosettes represent the cockades in the Imperial colors worn as badges on military hats, and the black-and-white chessboard sits in for one of von Freyburg’s favorite pastimes, the game of chess.  

The War Motif paintings, essentially a twelve-part elegy to Hartley’s close friend and perhaps lover, or lover-to-be, are powerfully “shaggy.” They are as heartrending as Hartley’s earlier paintings celebrating German pomp and circumstance are illuminating. The earlier The Warriors (1913), for instance, bubbles with a panoply of pageantry, dozens of soldiers on horseback, clad in white, giddy and happy with light. The mystical symbolism of Portrait of Berlin (1913) incorporates a figurine of the Buddha and the number eight in a triangle, eight having had mystical properties for Hartley that involved regeneration—he saw the number eight everywhere in Germany in the form of the German eight-pointed star. The War Motif paintings are also more authentically sentimental than his later series painted during this period in Europe, Amerika, also on view at LACMA. Inspired by his encounters with extensive collections of Native American artifacts housed in both Paris and Berlin, Hartley’s Amerika paintings incorporate North-American Native American symbolism with his same blocky and colorful style. Yet, in all, these paintings are overly explicit, coming from an age—as well as a European source—that easily found a mysterious Other in Native American culture.

Marsden Hartley returned to the United States in 1915. Nothing was getting better about the first mechanized war to end all wars and Hartley’s restlessness had reason to resurface in an enemy country during a war that was showing little evidence of resolution.

His paintings were held up over the borders until 1916, but he eventually was able to retrieve them and Stieglitz agreed to show the War Motif paintings at 291. Needless to say, a prevalence of Iron Crosses, German epaulets, and the insignia of the cuirassiers were not embraced by the New York art world a year after the ocean liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat, killing 1,195 passengers and crew, including 123 Americans. Hartley, in a text for the exhibition, later published in Camera Work, wrote: “There is no hidden symbolism whatsoever in them; there is no slight intention of that anywhere. Things under observation, just pictures any day, any hour. I have expressed only what I have seen. They are merely consultations of the eye — in no sense problem; my notion of the purely pictorial.” 

One hundred years later, this symbolism is indeed not so hidden, but they are much more than “merely consultations of the eye,” and a significant portrait made in a city where one could feel free to be ahead of one’s time.  

Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913–1915 is open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through November 30, 2014

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Rönnebeck was a member of the Queen Elisabeth Regiment of Grenadier Guards.