Marsden Hartley, Elsa Kobenhavn, 1916, Oil on composition board / Collection of the Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, Bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection
Imagine moving to a new place every ten months. Imagine having high artistic aspirations and very little money, relying on grants and friends’ help to make ends meet. Imagine having a fluctuating artistic identity, changing style often and repeatedly. Imagine being homosexual and struggling with latent depression and insecurity. This could be a drafted and yet pretty accurate profile of artist Marsden Hartley. Now imagine this, one century ago: when same-sex desire was illegal, extreme forms of nationalism were at their peak and artistic movements followed quite rigid aesthetic systems, often on a country by country basis. That was the era when Marsden Hartley was alive.
Marsden Hartley, Adelard the Drowned, Master of the “Phantom”, 1938-1939, Oil on academy board / Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, Bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection
Marsden Hartley, Summer Clouds and Flowers, 1942, Oil on fabricated board / Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992
A key figure in American Modernism, the Maine born artist is still very little known in Europe despite his periodic and significant sojourns in France and Germany, where he mingled with the most prominent avant-garde circles of his time. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark embarks in the mission of making Marsden Hartley acquainted with the European public through a grand retrospective that gathers over one hundred of his works.
“I see the possibility of being ‘made new’ again and the gift of rebirth is all that lets anyone really live.”
The exhibition, meticulously curated by Mathias Ussing Seeberg, is based on a structure that chronologically unfolds the artist’s life and practice in six chapters. A traditional but necessary choice, which highlights important recursions within the artist’s large and variegated production of paintings and writings (throughout his career, Hartley wrote as much as he painted, and extracts from his poems and essays are available in the show). Most importantly, a coherent choice if we look at Hartley as an emblematic example of an artist whose practice and biography are inextricably intertwined.
Marsden Hartley, Abundance, 1939-1940, Oil on canvas / Currier Museum of Art, Museum purchase: Currier Funds, 1959
Marsden Hartley, Blueberry Highway, Dogtown, 1931, Oil on composition board / High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with bequest of Charles Donald Belcher, 1977
The sense of isolation, loss and displacement that followed Hartley throughout his life is indeed what makes him so familiar to us today. To find the origin of his unconventional, often brooding landscapes – in which nature is transmuted in bold blocks of forms and colors, charged with both eros and spirit – we have to go back to his childhood. Short after his mother’s death, his father remarried and moved to another city. This deeply altered Hartley’s psychological balance, who turned to the natural element as a substitute for the human nurture he always felt devoid of, and to its representation as a way to explore his own feelings.
Marsden Hartley, Painting Number One, 1913, Oil on canvas / Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Anne R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust
Marsden Hartley, Himmel, 1914-1915, Oil on canvas with artist-painted wood frame / The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of the Friends of Art), Photo Jamison Miller
Particularly interesting is the connection between Hartley’s representation of nature and his homosexuality, the first often embodying the idealization of the second. For a major part of his career, the artist camouflaged his sexual inclination through pictorial symbols and metaphors, mainly of natural origin – such as the two pears that allusively “cross swords” in a still life from 1911. It was only at the age of sixty-one that Hartley started painting the human figure – a leap that was triggered, again, by a personal tragedy: the death of the two young sons of a fisherman family in Nova Scotia, where he finally gave up his life-long posture as an outsider and felt ready to settle down after decades spent wandering.
Marsden Hartley, Pears, 1911, Oil on wood / Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis
Marsden Hartley, Untitled (Maine Landscape), 1910, Oil on board / The Jan T. and Marica Vilcek Collection, Promised gift to The Vilcek Foundation
The show’s asset is to present the artist through the man, which reveals Hartley as an extraordinary contemporary figure in his instability, idiosyncrasies and dramas. In art as well as in life, Hartley was a fluid entity, difficult to put in just one box. As he himself declared in a letter from 1933: “I see the possibility of being ‘made new’ again and the gift of rebirth is all that lets anyone really live.”
The Earth Is All I Know of Wonder / Marsden Hartley
Curated by Mathias Ussing Seeberg
September 19, 2019 – January 19, 2020
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark
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