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"Marsden Hartley: First Retrospective in over 20 Years"
2003-01-17 until 2003-04-20
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Hartford, CT, USA United States of America

The first Marsden Hartley retrospective in over twenty years is being organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Comprising 85 paintings and 20 works on paper that represent each important stage of the artist’s creative life, Marsden Hartley will open at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., January 17 – April 20, 2003. The survey will travel to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., June 7 – September 7, 2003, and to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, October 11, 2003 – January 11, 2004.

Widely acknowledged as the greatest of the early American modernists, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) belonged to a circle of artists promoted by photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz that included Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Charles Demuth. He was also a widely published poet and essayist whose work appeared in Camera Work, The Dial, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and Yankee.

Unlike his colleagues, however, he was ceaselessly experimental, unusually peripatetic, and deeply spiritual. His greatest misfortune was timing. Falling out of synch with historic events and public sentiment, the politically naïve Hartley was plagued by professional setbacks. His first breakthrough achievement, the symbolic and abstract "War Motif" series, painted in Berlin during 1914-15, featured the Iron Cross, German imperial flags, and regimental insignia. Upon the outbreak of World War I, American viewers interpreted these bold, colorful paintings as pro-German statements. Later, critics saw his stylistic shifts and wanderlust as troubling signs of "personal incompletion." And in 1929 Henry McBride wrote, "Americans should not flee their country but should work in America even though the conditions for the artist be impossible here." The rebuke rankled. Although Hartley traveled incessantly in Europe and North America, and lived in France and Germany for lengths of time, he was proud of his New England roots. Steeped in Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, place mattered to Hartley. He aimed at "voicing the soul" in his art, and viewed the totality of his landscape, figure, and still life paintings as "portraits" of the spiritual essence he divined in nature and mankind alike.

Marsden Hartley opens with several early Maine landscapes that were first shown in 1909 at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, followed by the "Pre-War Pageant," "Amerika," and "War Motif" series painted in Berlin during 1913-15. Returning to North America, Hartley produced the "Province-town" series, the most abstract work by any of the Stieglitz circle, in 1916; still lifes in Bermuda in 1917; and depictions of the New Mexico landscape and Hispanic church imagery in 1918-19. He made an artistic pilgrimage to France in 1925-27, capturing the Vence landscape and Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. Returning to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1931, he began the cubistic "Dogtown" series; painted in Mexico during 1932-33, and sought inspiration in the Bavarian Alps in 1933. In the last nine years of his life, however, Hartley reinvented himself as "the painter from Maine." Coinciding with the Great Depression, this period marked his first sustained venture into figurative painting, for which he consciously adopted a primitive style to celebrate the "sturdy simple people" with whom he identified. It was his second breakthrough achievement.

Indeed, love, loss, and memory impelled Hartley to create his most compelling images. The "War Motif" series recalls his beloved German officer, Karl von Freyburg. Eight Bells’ Folly (1933) is a memorial for fellow poet Hart Crane. A variety of late portraits, seascapes, and still lifes are remembrances of the Masons, a Nova Scotia fishing family whose sons Alty and Donny, along with a cousin, were drowned.

Some of these and other paintings in the exhibition are undeniably homoerotic, yet one must remember that Hartley concealed his identity as a gay man to all but a few intimates. In the 1930s and ’40s, critics decried the "emasculation" of American art. Meanwhile, homosexuality was increasingly criminalized just as the U.S. Army, Hollywood, comic books, and magazines celebrated the "common man" with images of brawny men. "The distance of time allows us a deeper understanding of Marsden Hartley’s persisting quality and originality. This complex and fascinating artist is finally getting his due," said Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, deputy director, chief curator, and Krieble Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum. "This exhibition not only explores the high points of his career, but takes issue with the assumption that what came in between is of less consequence. As he moved to new subject matter and styles, navigating between abstraction and realism, Hartley achieved remarkable single works and new series within each of his four decades as a painter," she concluded.

Lenders include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Art Institute of Chicago; Bates College in Lewiston, Maine; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center, and Weisman Art Museum at University of Minnesota; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Saint Louis Art Museum; Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and many private collections.

Catalogue: Yale Press, London, is publishing the accompanying 330-page catalogue (plus index) with 150 color illustrations and 50 in black and white. The hardback edition is $55; the soft-cover is $39.95, and will be available at the Museum Shop at the Wadsworth Atheneum. It features an introductory essay by exhibition curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser; essays by Donna Cassidy, Wanda Corn, Amy Ellis, Randall Griffey, Patricia McDonnell, Bruce Robertson, Carol Troyen, Jonathan Weinberg, and conservators Stephen Kornhauser and Ulrich Birkmaier; and entries by Townsend Ludington and Kristina Wilson.

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