I fully expected to enjoy "Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913-1915," the newly opened exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And I did.
Hartley was one of the two greatest painters the United States produced in the artistically tumultuous first decades of the 20th century — the other was Arthur Dove — and there hasn't been an L.A. Hartley show since 1998.
What I did not expect was that the show would be so moving. The paintings Hartley made during a three-year European sojourn embody his startling artistic breakthrough. Call it modern public pageantry of private grief.
What better place to undertake the effort than LACMA, which has perhaps the most distinguished record of any American museum in scholarly exhibitions of Modern art that unfolded in Germany? (In collaboration with LACMA, the show was organized by Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, where it had its debut in April.) It coincides with the centennial of World War I, history's first fully industrialized conflict and an unspeakable horror that is key to Hartley's story.
It also coincides with LACMA's "Expressionism in Germany and France: Van Gogh to Kandinsky." A close reading of French Post-Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist paintings seen in Paris and Germany as Expressionist art developed, it underscores early 20th century art's international dialogue. The cosmopolitan ethos helped set the stage for the American painter.
The Hartley show is modest in size, just 28 pictures, and beautifully installed in three rooms.
The first gallery tracks his rapidly developing artistic interests. Hartley was born in 1877 in the small rural city of Lewiston, Maine, just north of Portland. His life followed a peripatetic path — Cleveland, New York, Boston, France, Germany, England, New Mexico, California, Mexico, Bermuda and Nova Scotia — before ending where he started: He died in Maine in 1943.
In 1912 he traveled to Paris, then moved to Berlin. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz and patron Lillie Bliss helped underwrite the trip. The artist was 35.
"Raptus," Latin for "seized," is straight out of Robert Delaunay's Parisian optical abstractions of whirling color. Here, their vivid Cubist dynamism is infused with crystalline structure that reads as a mystical sign. (Think 1960s peace symbol.) Nearby, the linear hooked shapes in "Painting No. One" are redolent of Wassily Kandinsky's galloping mountain-landscape abstractions. Both are thickly painted in loaded stabs and brusque swipes of nearly pure, unblended color.
Very different is "The Warriors" — an ethereal painting that, coincidentally, I once had the great good fortune to have hanging in a former office more than 30 years ago. (It was on long-term loan to a museum where I worked, and I couldn't get enough of it.) Shapes within a thin, visually radiant field of luminous red-orange are outlined in cobalt blue. They describe a regiment of uniformed soldiers mounted on horseback in parade formations, tall banners flapping in the breeze.
The array of layered arches recalls the tiers of cherubim and seraphim in medieval altarpieces or rows of niches in a Buddhist temple. Dust kicked up by the horses' prancing feet is a spreading horizontal spiral, like Asian art's stylized clouds.
As a dizzying new century was unfolding and the turmoil of modernity was running in high gear, French artists sought inspiration in pre-industrial societies in Africa and Prussian artists in medieval Germany. Hartley also turned to ancient Eastern religions. He merged the formal construction of avant-garde abstraction with the intuitive sensuousness of subjective experience.
He also looked at Native America — a subject of special interest to German artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix, who frequented the collections of American Indian artifacts in the Berlin Ethnographic Museum. (Later in Taos, N.M., Hartley was part of the circle around patron Mabel Dodge.) The show's third gallery focuses on his "Amerika Series," its Germanic spelling revealing a dual embrace of Berlin and his own national history.
Hartley's jumbled "Indian Composition" is emblematic. A triangular tepee in the center is surrounded by striped and circular forms. Indian decoration fuses with Modernist abstraction in pictographs and blanket designs, stylized seated figures, feathered headdresses, beadwork patterns and star forms in colored wheels (Delaunay again).
Like "The Warriors," the canvas is roughly 4 feet square. In fact, nearly a third of the show's paintings are square — a rather unusual format. A horizontal picture can suggest a landscape or table-top still life, vertical ones the human figure. By contrast, the square emphasizes equilibrium.
Or, as it does in the exhibition's extraordinary second room, it can suggest a shield or badge. Hartley's magnificent paintings of military motifs are the reason for the artist's place in the pantheon.
Only one thing is missing from this remarkable assembly: The most famous work in the series, the one reproduced in every textbook on Modern art, is nowhere to be found.
It isn't that LACMA didn't want "Portrait of a German Officer," which lays out the military motif in a painting nearly as tall as a standing man. Rather, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the picture, refused to let it come to L.A. — the show's only stop in America.
The Met did send it to the show's Berlin debut. When I inquired about the disparity, the Met's official explanation was bewildering.
Neither the painting's condition nor any other exhibition commitments were cited as preventing the loan. Instead, a spokesman said, "It is lent very sparingly, and the Museum decided to only let it travel to the organizing venue in Berlin."
That's not even a boilerplate reply. It's some weird kind of solipsism: "The reason we didn't lend it is that we decided not to." Whatever, it represents an appalling lack of museum collegiality.
The painting is missed, but a half-dozen others from the series include riveting examples, especially "The Iron Cross," one of the last Hartley made before the depredations of the war forced his own departure from Berlin in December 1915. The series was born from the brutal death of Carl von Freyburg; the dashing Prussian lieutenant was the painter's lover, killed in the war's first months.
These powerful, elegiac paintings are at once celebratory and grim. A crushing personal loss was surely aggravated by the cruel social censures forced on homosexuals. Little wonder, then, that restoration of emotional and spiritual balance was Hartley's artistic aim.
Their mostly jet-black backgrounds set off layered shapes in primary colors (plus white), heightening a conflicted visual drama of pleasure and pain, beauty and awfulness. The palette is as brash as a brass band. Yet the blaring imagery is shrouded in funerary gloom.
The compositions loosely derive from the antique designs of military plaques and imperial trophies. Flags, helmets, tassels, bunting, banners, medallions, epaulets, numerals that identify regiments — like scrapbook elements in a memorial collage, the military artifacts and symbols relate to Freyburg.
They're energetically reconfigured into a distinctly Modernist idiom — Hartley's fallen soldier transformed into a literal embodiment of an avant garde. Partly that idiom represents the heartbreaking intersection of private and public worlds. Searing personal anguish melds with theatrically ostentatious, imperial military display.
A video screen in the gallery helpfully juxtaposes period film clips. Newsreel footage shows grandiose martial parades in the streets of Berlin just before the war, followed by clips from Richard Oswald's 1919 film "Different from the Others," a German movie starring Conrad Veidt ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"), immediately after. Cinema's first gay love story, the narrative is told against a background of the German Criminal Code's notorious Paragraph 175, criminalizing same-sex relationships.
A landmark, the movie showed that homophobia, not homosexuality, is pathological. The Nazis soon banned it.
Not surprisingly, when Hartley got back to New York there was little market for abstract paintings on German themes. He soon dropped both. Yet the public pageantry of private grief in his war motifs never really left him. It rumbles just beneath the surface of muscular American landscape, still life and especially figure paintings that he made for the next 28 years.