“[Hartley is] the most important man of the moment.”
Gertrude Stein, 1913
“[We] should go together to the mountains and learn each other’s languages.”
Wassily Kandinsky, 1913
The series of paintings Marsden Hartley produced in Berlin between 1913 and 1915 constitute one of the iconic achievements in the history of modern art. Europe was in an era of titanic expectations and tragedies and Hartley’s life and work in Berlin mirror the culture’s spectrum. Pre-War Pageant is of unique significance within the context of this radical series of abstractions. This painting’s singularity derives from its status as the technical and stylistic breakthrough in Hartley’s career, and for the personal meaning it held for the artist. Its abstract planar shapes and vivid colors are dynamic symbols of Hartley’s emotional sensations and experiences during one of the happiest and most inspired moments in his life as well as his individual response to the pageantry and tension of Berlin in the year leading up to the outbreak of World War I.
Hartley wrote to Gertrude Stein in 1913 that his Berlin work, “expresses a fresh consciousness of what I see + feel around me—taken directly out of life + from no theorist formulas as prevails so much today.” The seminal early work in the series, Pre-War Pageant is an explosive painting that celebrates Hartley’s new life, his new art and the exhilaration he experienced in Berlin. “I like Berlin extremely…For me artistically it is stimulating strange to say. I find it full of mystical ideas + colors + I have begun to paint them—” (quoted in P. McDonnell, ‘Portrait of Berlin’: Marsden Hartley and Urban Modernity in Expressionist Berlin” in E.M. Kornhauser, ed., Marsden Hartley (exhibition catalogue) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, New Haven, Connecticut, p. 39). In addition to the artistic and intellectual inspiration that Hartley found in Berlin, he had also fallen in love with a young Prussian officer, Karl von Freyburg and thus Pre-War Pageant is also a deeply coded visual representation of this relationship, which was probably the most important of Hartley’s life. As Pre-War Pageant painted in 1913 represents the ecstasy of Hartley’s early days in Berlin, his poignant Portrait of a German Officer (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) of the following year, manifests the great tragedy of his life — Von Freyburg’s battlefield death. It is a stark and despairing memorial marking the end of his joy and happiness. These two visionary paintings track Hartley’s engagement with the creation of abstract painting and aesthetically define his personal resolutions of what modern art needed to be. They are the principal book ends of Hartley’s seminal Berlin period.
Hartley was already an accomplished artist when he first traveled to Europe in the spring of 1912, arriving in Paris that April at the age of 35. He had been represented by the leading gallerist of avant-garde art in New York, Alfred Stieglitz, for several years and his work had been exhibited in both solo and group shows at Stieglitz’s acclaimed ‘291’ Gallery. Through Stieglitz, Hartley had been exposed to the work of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. When he arrived in Paris, he quickly immersed himself in the arts scene, visiting the studios of Picasso, Frantisek Kupka and Robert and Sonia Delaunay among others, and regularly attending Gertrude Stein’s Saturday salons at her apartment on 27 rue de Fleurus.
Hartley also met and formed a close friendship with the German sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck, who would become “socially speaking [his] closest friend in the world” (quoted in J.T. Voorhies, ed., My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz, 1912-1915, Columbia, South Carolina, 2002, p. 172). Rönnebeck was instrumental in introducing the American artist to the work and theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, the leading progenitors of Der Blaue Reiter. By September 1912 Hartley, who could neither speak nor read German, began deciphering Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art) with his friend’s help and wrote enthusiastically to Stieglitz about Kandinsky’s book. Hartley’s initial enchantment derived only from the book’s title - it seemed directed squarely upon his own spiritual objectives for art. “My first impulses came from the mere suggestion of Kandinsky’s book The Spiritual in Art…the mere title opened up the sensation for me – and from this I proceeded” (ibid., p. 46). Rönnebeck also introduced Hartley to group of Germans living in Paris including his cousin, Lieutenant Von Freyburg with whom Hartley was immediately smitten. He fell in love with, the “most charming and excellent young German officer…so handsome…” (ibid., pp. 17-19) and saw something splendid in Von Freyburg’s character, feeling that he was a young man with a real soul – someone who could understand and was sensitive to Hartley’s artistic journey.
All that Hartley saw, read and experienced in Paris inflamed his imagination and led to a dramatic transformation in his work as he considered Cubism, Orphism and German Expressionism. He largely abandoned the representational landscapes and still lifes that he had produced in America to focus on what he referred to as “intuitive abstraction” and “cosmic cubism.” These abstract works combined various and far ranging influences in an attempt to unify his personal experiences and sensibilities with his art. In canvases such as Musical Theme No. 2 (Bach Preludes and Fugues) (1912, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and Painting No. 1 (1913, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska, Lincoln) Hartley sought his own spiritual expression through his desire to get “as near to myself as I have ever gone.”
Stein found Hartley interesting and followed his work closely, growing to believe that he accomplished “in every picture what neither Matisse or Picasso have done – make every part of a picture life – and not since Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau had color been given its true significance…” (Voorhies, op. cit., p. 68). She also believed that he “…succeeded in leaving out the physical element and giving for the first time the pure spiritual” (ibid., p. 117). She selected four works from Hartley’s studio, and invited him to lunch so that he could see in natural light how his paintings “…stand every test here and this room of ours is certainly a test for the art of anyone” (ibid., p. 72). Stein’s interest energized Hartley as he pursued the deeply personal and wholly inimitable direction that his art was taking.
As 1912 drew to a close, Hartley was tiring of the Paris art scene and sought to continue his Odyssey by traveling to Berlin with Rönnebeck and Von Freyberg, who at the time were the main actors in his life and the subjects of both Pre-War Pageant and Portrait of a German Officer. Of his optimism for the change of cities, Hartley wrote, “I have a feeling that a new art will come (in Germany)…an art mystical in its essence whereas here in Paris art is all art intellectual” (quoted in D. Scholz, Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913-1915 (exhibition catalogue), Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2014, p. 167).
Hartley first traveled to Berlin with Rönnebeck in January 1913 and quickly confirmed that it was, “without question the finest modern city in Europe” (Voorhies, op. cit., p. 55). On their return to Paris at the end of the month, they stopped in Munich to meet Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter. Hartley and Kandinsky had a strong mutual respect for one another’s work and they enjoyed a fine discussion together with Rönnebeck and Munter as translators. Kandinsky suggesting that they “should go together to the mountains and learn each other’s languages” (ibid., p. 74). Hartley later wrote, “I have never been in the presence of an artist like him – so free on convention with a hatred of all the traditions that cling to art” . Several months later, prior to moving to Berlin permanently, Hartley also visited Franz Marc in Sindelsdorf. Marc as Kandinsky had interest in and admiration for Hartley’s work, writing “Dear Friend – Allow me to say you how much pleasure I find in your valiant pictures. …I am profoundly fond of the high sincerity of your art which is of a great holiness and pureness…” (ibid., p. 77). Indeed, the two German artists were integral to the inclusion of five of Hartley’s paintings at Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon and assisted him with various introductions to German dealers. Of the two, Hartley felt a closer connection to Marc, with whom he continued to correspond, believing him to be “extremely psychic,” while he thought Kandinksy was “theosophic” (ibid., p. 56).
For Hartley Berlin, where he moved permanently in May 1913, was the “center of modern life in Europe,” and he “like[d] the life color of Berlin…a sense of perpetual gaiety here…the feeling that some great festival is being celebrated always” (ibid., p. 76). He relished the constant military presence and parades and the proximity of young Prussian soldiers such as Von Freyberg. The year 1913 was also the centennial of the defeat of Napoleon, the Emperor’s Jubilee and the marriage of the Kaiser’s daughter, all of which precipitated celebrations that lent the city a most exuberant and expectant air. Hartley liked the crowds, he enjoyed feeling a part of something big and joyous. Here Hartley’s personal condition coalesced with all that he had seen and produced in Paris to create another radical shift in his work. Pre-War Pageant and his other paintings from the period represent the birth of an entirely individual style, unique among his peers on either side of the Atlantic. Berlin was the catalyst for Hartley’s creation of some of the most important and progressive paintings in the development of modern art.
Pre-War Pageant triumphantly manifests Hartley’s new, inimitable aesthetic. It is a bold abstraction and a response to the city and the personal and artistic liberation that he felt in the thriving metropolis on the precipice of war. Dynamic, euphoric and primal, it is innovative and distinct — Hartley and no one else. Deeply coded and highly symbolic, each element has both physical and mystical references. An early work in the series, in Pre-War Pageant, Hartley creates the lexicon that he would utilize for the rest of his Berlin paintings. Rendered with muscular brushwork, the abstract iconography of Pre-War Pageant incorporates a myriad of diverse influences including Cubism, German Expressionism, Native American art, the writings of German mystic Jacob Boehme, folk art, Egyptian art, and a number of others, with Hartley’s observations and sensations of Berlin. He internally synthesizes these various sources to create a highly original and deeply personal visual language that evokes both his own experiences and sensations and reveals universal truths.
Among the forms and symbols, which recur in varied iterations throughout the Berlin series comprise: a central triangular form, the union of this form with an inverted triangle, eight-pointed stars, rays, lightening bolts, blue and yellow circles, targets, flags and badges. Each element has many possible interpretations. For example, the triangles can allude to Kandinsky, Boehme, the trinity, Native American culture, the ornament on soldier’s helmets, flag pole covers and the relationship of Hartley, Rönnebeck and Von Freyberg. Of the latter, Hartley wrote Stieglitz that “in Berlin we three were very much together and it was a very beautiful triangle” (Scholz, op. cit., p. 184). The inverted triangle above, meeting at the point and about to merge with the larger triangle along a pronounced horizontal line expresses the duality of earthly and heavenly spheres, the physical and the cerebral: the terrestrial meaning of the triangle as a symbol of his life experiences and the inverted triangle occupying the celestial realm of mystic experiences he felt in friendship and love. The two triangles, his spiritual quest for the unification of his life and art had for years been his driving force and here it is realized. The triangles therefore represent not only the temporal fulfillment of his life on earth, it also represents the celestial fulfillment of his spiritual being in the eternal universe. The touching of the triangles is of deep spiritual significance and, according to Boehme, that in progressing to meet and then merge, they form the Seal of Solomon, the most significant Character in all the Universe.
The kaleidoscopic collage of patterned areas can be interpreted as the flags and banners inherent to the Prussian military culture and pageantry that defined Berlin at the time, and also a nod to Cubism. The ringed circular forms can simultaneously be targets, wheels or badges. Hartley first encountered the eight-pointed star in an Italian primitive painting reproduced in the Der Blaue Reiter almanac and utilized them in several of his Paris paintings. This star has mystic and spiritual meanings in a number of cultures related to harmony and equanimity, resurrection and regeneration, it is symbolic of a new era, a new beginning. These aspects are metaphors for Hartley’s move to Berlin, whereas the eight-pointed star is simultaneously a symbol of the Prussian military – “I am seeing eight-pointed stars here [in Berlin] by the thousands-a symbolist friend says it is a fine star for me – on the Kaiser’s breast it is always – on helmets of the thousands of soldiers – on the pavements, on the table-cloths” (Scholz, op. cit., p. 132).
The bolts of angular white “lightning,” that dart about with staccato energy in random paths through the blue background and onto the painted frame have connections to both Boehme and Native American culture. They can be interpreted to express the vitality of Berlin and Hartley’s inner ecstasy and can also mean “revolt” and separation, expressing possibly, Hartley’s own revolt and separation in positioning himself in an independent sphere outside those of Picasso, Kandinsky and others of his contemporaries. They, as the triangle, can also reference Native American culture – uniting ancient and modern, American, Eastern and European spiritual histories. In Pre-War Pageant, they emanate off the canvas and onto the painted frame, transcending the two dimensional confines of the canvas.
Hartley would repeat a number of the motifs established in Pre-War Pageant in multiple paintings over the course of the next year and a half and, at times the meaning of the imagery is more overt than in the present work. For example the central red and white triangle of Pre-War Pageant becomes a flag cover in Portrait of a German Officer and evolves into a teepee in his later German pictures. While each pictorial element can be read as symbolically loaded, Hartley asserted that the primary goal was: “The pictures must reach inward, into the deeper experiences of the beholder – and mind you they are in no way religious tracts…they are merely artistic expressions of mystical states…my own emotions as drawn from either special experience or aggregate ones” (Voorhies, op. cit., p. 104).
Hartley understood the profundity of his Berlin paintings, writing to Stieglitz, “I cannot estimate to you the worth of this German trip, it has given me my place in the art movement in Europe – I find in this my really creative period. I have something personal to say and that no one is saying just this thing – it all ‘comes’ out of new growth in my life – a culmination of inward desires of long standing” (ibid., p. 54).
- John Driscoll Ph.D.
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