Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), half a world away from the First World War’s European theatre of action, is marking that centenary with a small but significant exhibition of pictures that American artist Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) produced when he lived in Europe from 1912 to 1915, first in Paris and Munich, then for three years in Berlin. These years marked the highest reaches of his very individual, brightly-coloured expressionist abstractions laced with gentle mysticism, placing him at the forefront of the avant-garde. Back in New York his work was to be highly influential.
Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at LACMA and curator of the Hartley show, finds the German years ‘a particularly interesting chapter of his career’ – and a little known one. The exhibition is shared with Berlin’s Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (on show April–June, 2014) where Director Udo Kittelmann admitted Hartley was ‘virtually unknown to this day in Germany and all of Europe’. Although only 11 paintings are in both exhibitions, all works from both shows are in the catalogue.
‘In Berlin’, resumes Barron, ‘he took an apartment and shortly thereafter, in this freer society, developed an infatuation for a Prussian lieutenant, Karl von Freyburg. He sees the build up and start of the war, witnesses the enthusiasm to enter the war that would end all wars. Soon Freyburg is killed; Hartley sees the reality of war. His pictures after this are essentially a memorial to him.’ She cites Hartley’s seminal Portrait of a German Officer (1914, Metropolitan Museum of New York) in which military images and abstract forms mesh to create a powerfully symbolic portrait.
Most of Hartley’s German paintings – about 45 are known – were sent back to the US for sale. There, says Barron, ‘they were an important conduit between European and American artists, especially for the people Stieglitz was showing during the teens’ – O’Keeffe, Duchamp, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, the American Group of Eight (later the Ashcan School). As Stieglitz’s muse Georgia O’Keeffe said, the effect of Hartley’s pictures was of ‘a brass band in a closet’.
‘Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913–15’ is at LACMA until 30 November.