Marsden Hartley (1877–1943)
Marsden was sensitive—a reader of the occult, myths and a lover of symbols, hieroglyphics and forgotten cultures. His American Indian paintings, which are also part of the show but completely opposite in tone, are hierarchical depictions of a way of life that is content, close to nature, and centered around the female symbol of the open teepee door—they are beautiful even if you don’t like the American “savage.” I believe the Berlin paintings are about sacrifice—the sacrifice of young men by the thousands in order to unify and cleanse the nations of fear. (Our primitive fathers were satisfied with goats and a couple of virgins. If this is progress, obviously we have lost our minds.)
Perhaps I give Hartley too much credit, or maybe I am reading into his work more than I should? I don’t think so, because I didn’t think about all this until I saw his paintings. Interestingly, when Germany lost the war, shame settled on everything like a suffocating blanket and no one wanted to touch his paintings. No one wanted to be reminded and Marsden returned home penniless. I do not think he painted to impress people or to immortalize war. (How do you immortalize war—the happy rape of the Sabine women?) Marsden painted the vibes he felt at the time, unmoved by fashion or art theories—which brings us back to Dogtown. An artist’s raw ability to put so much wordless feeling into dirt, fences, and rocks is a topic I am virtually incapable of articulating. I can manage to squeak out the esoteric word primordial, but the next word would be more plain: magic.