Marsden Hartley was a key figure in a small group of Americans determined to produce modern art in when it was still a new and controversial idea, even in early 20th century New York. More or less always broke, he showed at Alfred Stieglitz’s galleries but rarely sold his work. Attempting a fresh start, he moved to the progressive city of Berlin just before the outbreak of the First World War. There he became infatuated with a young Prussian officer who was killed in the first few months of the fighting. These paintings at LACMA were Hartley’s way of expressing his sorrow at the loss.The show was organized by curator Stephanie Barron with the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museum zu Berlin and continues through November 30.
In many of these pictures, he uses black to offset the bold colors of red, white, gold and green for militaristic symbols and emblems that he abstracted from the Prussian uniforms: Plumed helmets, iron crosses, the stripes and checks of flags. The painting most exactly concerning the death of Hartley’s friend, Portrait of Berlin, 1913, however has light colored background with the elements of uniforms and insignia stacked in such a way that they resemble the figure of a man including the number four of his regiment and sadly, the number 24, referring to his age.
Hartley’s love for another man is certainly a timely topic as is the uselessness of war, particularly the tragic First World War. The paintings are spectacular, some of the best the artist ever produced, and there is an additional feature in this exhibition: clips from a 1919 silent movie Different from the Others. It involves the story line of a doctor and “sexologist” who defends homosexuality as a natural variation as opposed to criminal or pathological condition. It was a time when a new ruling was being passed outlawing the behavior. It is startlingly frank and worth standing in the gallery to watch the monitor. (One of my least favorite obligations.)
In addition, there are films of period military processions in Potsdam and Berlin so you can see exactly where Hartley got the ideas for his emblems and symbols. When Georgia O’Keeffe saw Hartley’s paintings at the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, she said they reminded her of a brass band in a closet. They remain raucous and this is a rare opportunity to see them together as they were originally presented, apparently the first time that they have been shown as a group.
In addition, there are a number of paintings based on motifs of Native Americans. Hartley was fascinated by their spiritual beliefs and in this series Amerika, he incorporated the patterns of blankets and baskets as well as schematic Western landscapes.
Continuing the theme of art influenced by Native Americans, in an adjacent gallery is LACMA’s recently purchased installation by LA artist Sam Durant: Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C. It is a trenchant gathering of small scale models of monuments made to commemorate the deaths of whites during the Indian Wars as well as those marking the deaths of Indians. Durant made this largely conceptual proposal for public art for the mall in Washington, D.C. It brings to mind all the colliding beliefs about war, our views of others, and how art can illuminate and expand such ideas. For more information, go to LACMA.org.