Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Beyond the Intellect

Marsden Hartley at Boise Art Museum

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The lifetime of American painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) sits astride a tumultuous period of history. It began in what was essentially still the era of the horse and buggy and cavalry charges, and ended in the early years of airlines and the introduction of blitzkrieg war. It was also, of course, a period of revolutionary change in art, the surge of modernism, a cause Hartley wholeheartedly embraced.

Yet, as a gay man, Hartley knew well how agonizingly slow certain social mores and attitudes were progressing. The secretive, nomadic life it forced him to lead created considerable psychological and emotional stress for him, exacerbating a proclivity to depression. Consequently, his art swings from exuberance to despondency by turns, a celebration of the liberating effects of color, music and poetry, then an outlet for repressed painful emotions.

"Marsden Hartley: American Modern at the Boise Art Museum," reveals not only Hartley's achievements and aesthetic shifts but an important period in American painting. It is a rare and wonderful survey of Hartley's career, featuring a number of his important works. The art is alive and intense, having a vitality and tension that testifies to an intensely personal, original vision.

It is a complicated vision reflecting the diverse interests of an outsider. Born and raised in Maine, Hartley had a serious streak of Puritanism in him, despite his homosexuality.

Hartley wrote essays, poetry and criticism all his adult life, much of it imbued with the same inner searching he brought to the canvas. Early in his career, he would write about seeking "the great intangible," and that "there is something beyond the intellect ... this is what I am working for ..." Later when he switched gears, stressing intellect over intuition, his spiritual core and mystical view of nature in his art would remain intact. Hartley's biographer concludes: "Even when he denied imagination ... the concepts of mysticism held him ..." But it was a mysticism of an American sort which, when blended with his up-close interaction with the European avant-garde, gives his art its distinct stamp.

The paintings from before the 1920s document the profound impact such painters as Matisse, Cezanne and the American Albert Pinkham Ryder had on his art. His exposure to their groundbreaking work was largely the doing of famed art impresario and champion of modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, whose Gallery 291 in Manhattan opened the eyes of many Americans to what artists on the continent were doing. As he did with other American modernists like Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keefe, Stieglitz took Hartley under his wing and introduced him to a circle of collectors, writers and artists who stimulated his creativity and spurred him to new heights. Later when he left New York for Paris, Gertrude Stein, matriarch of American expatriates in France, showed him works in her collection by Cezanne and Picasso, encouraging his unique brand of modernism.

The early paintings at BAM document that Hartley's lifelong love of landscape began under the spell of late-impressionism in paintings like the Monet-esque Maine Snowstorm (1908), with its blizzard of blues, greens and whites, and his series of autumn studies of 1908-09. Gradually, his increasingly brazen hues and freer technique indicated similarities to the emerging German Expressionist treatment of nature (art Hartley had yet to see). Echoing his admiration for Ryder's moody art is his Deserted Farm of 1909, a dark, desolate image heavy with storm clouds and ominous forms implying both personal loss and the fragility of human endeavors. It is the beginning of the theme of mortality in his art, something he returned to again and again.

Three paintings from this period hanging together show Hartley on the verge of moving toward pure abstraction: Waterfall (1910), a densely packed abstract mosaic of horizontal brushstrokes and diagonals of cascading paint; Abstraction (1911), a darkly luminous, stained glass-like image with strong rectilinear and curvilinear elements that resembles the early Mondrian; and Still Life of 1912, an intricately designed composition thrust to the front of the picture plane, emulating the emotional intensity Cezanne brought to such subjects.

The culmination of Hartley's experimentation with abstraction took place during his years in France and Germany from 1912 to 1915. Spurred by the writings of William James and painter Vasily Kandinsky's book, On the Spiritual in Art, Hartley's interest in spirituality and mysticism intensified. His effervescent Abstraction with Flowers from 1913 is a salad of esoteric symbolism, geometric and organic forms amidst a Big Bang of color. It was during Hartley's two-year stay in Germany that he made his most famous painting entitled Portrait, which is in the show.

Curiously, Hartley felt much more at home in Berlin than he had in Paris, soaking up the ideas of the Blaue Reiter group and other expressionist painters, as well as the nationalistic fervor there at the time, with the countless parades decked out in full military regalia. He even had an affair with a German officer, Karl von Freyberg. Clearly, the strong male culture of Wilhelmine Germany appealed to Hartley and informed his art. Portrait was probably Hartley's first eulogy painting, dedicated to von Freyberg after his death on the Western Front. It is a strong composition comprised of multiple military references: insignia, Freyberg's posthumous Iron Cross, the Prussian plumed helmet. With its heavy blacks offsetting a vivid, expressionistic palette, it is a powerful personal and cultural statement.

Several other "eulogy" paintings here are among his strongest, and strangest, work. Eight Bells Folly (1933) is a memorial to the poet Hart Crane who jumped overboard while sailing home from a vacation with Hartley in Mexico. Set at night it is a nightmarish scene of eyes peering through the waves, a shark form baring its teeth, and lung-shapes hovering in the midnight sky. In Adelard the Drowned (1938-39), Hartley pays tribute to another drowning victim, his friend Alty Mason. This sad, direct painting reveals the artist's affection for his obviously gay friend, and may be the closest he came to outing himself.

The exhibit makes a point about the great change in Hartley's art after World War I, as happened with many artists, saying it caused in Hartley a "return to realism." This is oversimplifying the case. In the post-war works there is a return to representation and figuration, but not much realism. Despite Hartley's professions of having turned away from the imagination in favor of cool intellect, his paintings remained very much those of the soulful expressionist. While drawn to American regionalism, he still considered his art "bound to the mystical," and his paintings bear him out. In contrast to American modernists like Georgia O'Keefe who subsumed all traces of ego to grand visions of nature, Hartley wore his heart on his sleeve.

The exhibit runs through June 22. Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330.