The Neue Nationalgalerie’s Marsden Hartley, the German Paintings 1913-1915 provides an unprecedented opportunity to see thirty stunning oil paintings from the American Modernist’s Berlin years. These works have not been displayed together in a focused exhibition since the artist exhibited them himself in 1915. Commendably, the Neue Nationalgalerie recognized the need for an exhibition that brings together paintings from a period representing the pinnacle of Hartley’s abstractions and the dawning of his self-identity as an “American Mystic.”
Regrettably, the omission of crucial facts from wall texts, sketchy (and at times misleading) contextualizing information, and the paintings’ mostly order-less hanging, contributed instead to making the exhibition a missed opportunity.
Yet, fans of American Modernism will be delighted with each of the paintings on view. The exhibition’s stars are those belonging to Hartley’s masterful Amerika and War Motif series. The Amerika paintings, produced toward the end of the artist’s time in Berlin, pay homage to Native American imagery and Hartley’s own syncretic spirituality. Combining such eclectic imagery as teepees, hieroglyphics, crosses, and moons in symmetrical, hieratic compositions, the Amerika works attest Hartley’s own rethinking and reaffirmation of his American identity during his time abroad. Through a process of emulating and reworking the motifs, brushwork, palette, and content of artists he encountered while abroad, Hartley came to define for himself an “American” brand of Modernism. His engagement with the works of German Expressionist painters is one of the most important visual aspects to consider in the body of work on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not offer visual comparisons with works (or even reproductions) from peers Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, which would have helped make this influence more explicit for viewers.
Marsden Hartley, Indian Fantasy, 1914. Oil on canvas, 118.6 x 99.9 cm; Courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Art
Hartley's War Motif paintings blend the geometry of cubism with the bold, saturated palette and impasto of German Expressionism, creating powerful abstractions that convey the dazzling pageantry of the Prussian military and the devastating anguish brought on by the First World War.
Indeed, the Prussian military’s conspicuous presence in Berlin played a key iconographic role in Hartley’s Berlin paintings. As the artist recounted in his autobiography, “I had never felt such a sense of voluptuous tension in the air anywhere… There was so much to regale the eye with…there was always a [military] parade of some kind… the whole scene was fairly bursting with organized energy and… the feeling of power – [which had] a sexual immensity even in it.”
Part and parcel of Hartley’s attraction to the pomp and circumstance of the Prussian military was its strong homosexual subculture. At this time, Berlin was the most tolerant city for homosexuality in the world, with approximately forty gay bars, a network of private clubs, and a campaign to legalize homosexual relations. In a peculiar omission, this information, along with Hartley’s gay identity, is never stated explicitly in the exhibition. Viewers should be aware of these facts, as they were key motivations for Hartley’s move to Berlin.
The exhibition layout reinforces a central motif in Hartley’s war series: the Iron Cross. The paintings are divided among three of the cross’s arms—ten to each room—while the fourth arm forms a theater for two videos. Apart from compliance with the architectural construct, the division of the paintings into three sections does not seem to advance any particular curatorial or narrative strategy, as there are no wall texts suggesting thematically motivated groupings.
Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, Oil on canvas, 173.4 x 105.1 cm; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.70.42)
The intersection of the cross houses a Hopi kachina doll, a German Christian glass painting, and a Buddhist Amitayus figurine, referencing Hartley’s diverse visual and spiritual sources of inspiration. Fittingly, they are even taken from the same Ethnological Museum collections that Hartley would have visited during his time in Berlin. This central display also features a case of flags and accoutrements from the Prussian military costume, which are arranged to reflect Hartley’s composition Portrait of a German Officer and help contextualize the visual stimuli that surrounded Hartley during his Berlin years.
Two films loop in the fifth exhibition room. A compilation featuring imagery of military parades—such as a ceremonial procession down Berlin’s main boulevard, Unter den Linden, on the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II—complement Hartley’s War Motif series. The other film excerpt shows scenes from Different from the Others, a 1919 film that follows a man who is harassed and persecuted for being homosexual, and who eventually commits suicide. This film was probably intended to act in the exhibition as a testament to Berlin’s advanced attitude toward homosexuality. Yet, its ominous tenor overshadows the fact that Berlin-based sex activist Magnus Hirschfeld wrote the screenplay in an attempt to engender sympathy for homosexuals. Exhibition viewers might come away from this excerpt with the misconception that Berlin was an unsafe place to be a homosexual. More contextualizing information about the film, as well as further information about Hartley’s sexual orientation could have helped viewers understand the significance of this film in encapsulating the outspoken gay community in Berlin and how this community would have attracted Hartley to the city.
Hartley’s German paintings will be given a second opportunity to shine when the show moves to the Los Angeles County Museum. A deeper reflection of the works he produced in Germany could be achieved through the addition of biographical details and by accentuating the visual influence of German Expressionist painters by showing their works alongside Hartley’s. Such adjustments might help to emphasize how pivotal these works were in the life and artistic development of this great master of American Modernism.
 Hartley, Marsden. Ed. Susan Elizabeth Ryan. Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley. MIT Press: Cambridge, 1997. pp. 86-87.
 Weinberg, Jonathan. Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. p. 143
(Image on top: Marsden Hartley, Painting Number One, 1913, Oil on canvas; Courtesy of the Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.)