This painting is included in Gail R. Scott’s The Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: Paintings and Works on Paper. We are grateful for Ms. Scott’s assistance with the cataloguing of this work.
Marsden Hartley developed some of the most innovative, emotive paintings of early abstraction during his seminal trip to Europe from 1912 to 1915. The present work, Abstraction, represents the absolute furthest Hartley pushed away from representation during this renowned period of his career, and arguably throughout his entire oeuvre. Building upon his musical ‘intuitive’ works of late 1912, and anticipating the politically and personally entrenched wartime German Officer paintings, Abstraction embodies a pivotal moment when Hartley allowed himself to celebrate his own experiences and spirituality as he had never before or after. As a result, the painting veritably vibrates to this day with the intellectual and spiritual energy of one of the greatest visionaries of early twentieth-century art.
In April 1912, with the support of his New York gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley traveled abroad to Europe for the first time. Following in the footsteps of other members of the Stieglitz Circle, and indeed a long tradition of American artists, he settled in Paris to immerse himself in the Post-Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist movements that were incubating in the capital of the modern art world. He soon formed close relationships with key members of the French avant-garde, including the famous salon host and patroness Gertrude Stein, and gained a familiarity with the work of Picasso, Braque, Delaunay and other icons of the era. He also made a brief visit to London, where he visited the British Museum and, as Gail Scott posits, perhaps was influenced by the bold, geometric forms of Ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art.
However, Hartley would find the inspiration behind his greatest European works in the up-and-coming German art world of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Hartley’s fascination with German Modernism began in Paris where he met the sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and his younger cousin, Prussian officer Carl von Freyburg. Hartley explained of their relationship, “we three were much together and it was a very beautiful triangle.” (as quoted in Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913-1915, p. 53) These young men introduced their American friend to the work of Kandinsky and Marc and the German Expressionist almanac Der Blaue Reiter. Hartley was instantly drawn not only to the intensely-colored abstraction, but moreover to the spiritual content in works by these artists. Hartley wrote of Kandinsky’s book On the Spiritual in Art, “the mere title opened up the sensation for me—and from this I proceeded.” (as quoted in Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913-1915, p. 160) Indeed, his paintings from this period are not an imitation of Kandinsky’s methods and interpretations but rather spring from a similar spiritual focus. Ilene Susan Fort explains, “In the autumn of 1912, Hartley began painting canvases he called Intuitive Abstractions. They consist of black-outlined polygons, triangles, circles, parabolas, and ovals, piled up closely together in a narrow foreground scape with bright colors drawn in each shape. In many of the larger mandorla forms, the artist drew individual Buddhas or other religious-like symbols, pictographs, and musical staffs…Even though formally they suggest his knowledge of cubism, orphism, and Kandinsky’s improvisations, the Intuitive Abstractions reflect ideas Hartley culled from his philosophical readings.” (“Hartley’s Spiritual Education,” Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913-1915, p. 112)
With this appreciation for German art and culture percolating while in Paris, Hartley traveled to Munich in January 1913, meeting Kandinsky in person and immediately falling in love with the city. He stayed three weeks and returned to the country in May to live until December 1915. He recalled later of the forceful appeal of pre-War Berlin: "I was so overcome with the speed, the brilliance, the spotlessness of the life and the city that I moved there later...The intense flamelike quality of the life there--for things were of course up on their toes and ready to kick off...I had never felt such a sense of voluptuous tension in the air anywhere. It was all so warm to my long chilled New England nature and provided the sense of home always so needed in my life...A week in Berlin made me feel that one had come home." (Somehow a Past, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 84-87)
Painted circa 1912-13 in either Paris or Berlin, Abstraction bursts with this “flamelike quality” and “voluptuous tension” which the artist felt imbedded into his experiences in the modern European cities. The boldly eclectic canvas seems to encapsulate the disjunction of modern life as well as the multitude of stimuli associated with urban living. While some of Hartley’s other works from this period feature more direct references and symbols, the present work favors a boldly abstracted, expressive approach. Interpretation of the forms remains almost frustratingly opaque and ephemeral, always open to questioning. Hartley himself wrote of his works from this period, “There is a real reason for all these signs but it remains mystical -- + explanations are not necessary.” (as quoted in B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 32)
The technical execution of Abstraction furthers this sense of mystery and intrigue with the overlaying forms executed in brushy yet intense colors to create a painting that is simultaneously Synthetic Cubist and Expressionist. Fort explains of the Hartley works from this crucial 1912-13 era, “Through brushwork and changing colors the images flicker before the viewer. Hartley’s explanation of his Paris cosmic abstractions can also be applied to some of his early Berlin paintings: ‘I would just take some canvases and begin more or less in the style of automatic writing and let my hand be guided as it were…They began to be portraits of moments.’” (“Hartley’s Spiritual Education,” p. 116) Indeed, among the most brilliantly colored and least representational of this period, Abstraction embodies Gertrude Stein’s proclamation in an April 1913 letter to Stieglitz: “[Hartley] has used color to express a picture, and he has done it so completely that while there is nothing mystic or strange about his production it is generally transcendent.” (as quoted in Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913-1915, p. 113)
Hartley once reflected that he perceived German life as “essentially mural…big lines and large masses—always a sense of the pageantry of living.” (as quoted in Marsden Hartley, p. 32) His large-scale Abstraction visualizes this assessment of his experiences in the capitals of Europe, composing an arrangement of strongly outlined, massive geometric shapes into an immersive snapshot of the aura of bustling twentieth-century cities. Combining the vibrant palette and gestural brushwork of his Blaue Reiter contemporaries, the more structured approach of the Cubists and his own take on philosophy, Hartley created an entirely new visual vocabulary reinterpreted through his unique sensibility and spirituality. While this language would become more formalized, more connected to representation and more precisely symbolic in his iconic war paintings of the following years, Abstraction represents Hartley at his most experimental and, as a result, astounds the viewer with one of the artist’s boldest visual statements of his renowned career.