Paul Strand, American
Gelatin silver print
Image (sight): 9 3/8 x 7 7/16 inches (23.8 x 18.9 cm)
The Paul Strand Retrospective Collection, 1915-1975, gift of the estate of Paul Strand, 1980
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Marsden HartleyAmerican, 1877 - 1943
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In the end of 1912 Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) wrote from Paris to Alfred Stieglitz about his new abstract paintings: "It is not like anything here--It is not like Picasso--it is not like Kandinsky not like any 'Cubism.'"1 He went on to discuss his sources of inspiration, which he found not only in Wassily Kandinsky's writings (which he preferred to his paintings) but also in Henri Bergson's philosophy, both of which posited intuition as the true source of artistic expression. Other letters reveal that Hartley was reading even more widely and that he was thinking deeply and analytically about how a variety of theories, mystical as well as pragmatic, applied to the increasingly spiritual basis for his increasingly abstract art.2 Hartley had recently arrived in Paris on his first trip to Europe, and he was passing rapidly through a variety of stylistic phases, progressing from an initial series of still lifes inspired by Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne to the abstract work he described in his letter. Serious, intense, and searching, Hartley at this time was wide open to new influences and eclectic in his work. Yet, as Patricia McDonnell put it, "Hartley was often beset with doubts regarding how things would turn out for him, but he rarely doubted his own importance as an artist....he longed to make a name for himself in Europe, something he set about with determined purpose."3 Hartley's first trip to Europe lasted from April 1912 to November 1913. He spent April through December 1912 in Paris, took a three-week trip to Berlin and Munich in January 1913, and returned to Paris for February through late April 1913. Enthralled by Berlin, he went back in May and stayed there until his departure for New York in November, but he did no painting there until mid-July.4 It was probably sometime during the late summer or fall in Berlin that Hartley made the unusual abstract painting Composition, which is traditionally dated 1913.
Hartley began painting abstract compositions in Paris in the fall of 1912. Dubbed "Intuitive Abstractions," the first ones comprised a series inspired by music, such as Musical Theme No. 2 (Bach Preludes),5 which uniquely mixed the fragmented angular structure and the use of words and signs derived from Pablo Picasso's Analytical Cubism with forms, shapes, and colors inspired by the work of Kandinsky. The influence of Kandinsky intensified in works painted during Hartley's last months in Paris in 1913, such as Painting No. 1, which is filled with overlapping, rounded, organic shapes as well as circles and stars surrounded by heavy, dark outlines.6 Hartley's brushwork in these paintings is agitated, with a frequent use of pure white or colors mixed with white. The abstract paintings Hartley made in Paris during 1912 and 1913 had nothing in common with Composition, which is heavily painted and composed of flat, tightly compressed, angular shapes; rather than pronounced outlines, in Composition the shapes are defined by intense, juxtaposed colors that are thickly brushed. Moreover, Composition is made up completely of abstract shapes, unembellished by words, stars, or symbols. The first paintings Hartley made in Berlin in 1913 also have little in common with Composition. Works such as Portrait of Berlin and The Warriors7 are quite thinly painted and are filled with stars, buddhas, animals, and other mystical signs. Portrait of Berlin in particular displays an increased use of white as well as the heavy, dark outlining of forms that can be seen in the 1913 Paris paintings.
Where does Composition fit into Hartley's development in 1913? Though a strict chronology of his 1913 abstract paintings has not been firmly established, Barbara Haskell perceptively identified a set of common characteristics that emerge in a few paintings Hartley seems to have made toward the end of his 1913 stay in Berlin, notably Military and Movements.8 Although it remains an unusual and perhaps experimental work, Composition exhibits several of the same qualities as those pictures. For example, Hartley replaced heavy, dark outlines by juxtaposing large, clearly defined areas of color, giving an appearance that is analogous to a Cubist collage. This collagelike aspect is most pronounced in Composition, where the flat shapes have a layered, cutout look, almost as though they had been applied to the surface. Also markedly different are the colors: bright, hot hues, thickly applied with forceful brushstrokes, replace the previous dominance of white. Haskell likens the new handling of color to the dynamism of works by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, and concludes, "By combining the pictorial energy of the Blaue Reiter Expressionists with the tightly knit, collage format of the Cubists, he achieved a remarkable synthesis of the expressive with the structured."9 Still, Military and Movements clearly forecast the next phase of Hartley's work, notably his Indian compositions of 1914. Composition, by contrast, was one of Hartley's rare experiments in pure abstraction, almost certainly made when he was exploring the same pictorial concerns as in those two more characteristic pictures.10
Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The C. K. Williams II Collection (2009), pp. 170-172.
2. Ibid., pp. 28-29.
3. Patricia McDonnell, "'Portrait of Berlin': Marsden Hartley and Urban Modernity in Expressionist Berlin," in Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, ed., Marsden Hartley, exh. cat. (Hartford, CT: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, in association with Yale University Press, 2002), p. 42.
4. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, p. 32.
5. Reproduced in Bruce Robertson, Marsden Hartley (New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1995), p. 36, pl. 10.
6. Reproduced in Haskell, Marsden Hartley, pp. 149, pls. 74.
7. Reproduced in Kornhauser, Marsden Hartley, pp. 62-63, pls. 10-11.
8. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, p. 33. Military is reproduced in Kornhauser, Marsden Hartley, p. 64, pl. 12; Movements is reproduced in Haskell, p. 150, pl. 75.
9. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, p. 33. Gail Levin, Synchromism and American Color Abstraction, 1910-1925, exh. cat. (New York: George Braziller, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1978), p. 43, draws analogies between Composition and the paintings of Robert Delaunay and suggests that its flat design looks forward to Hartley's military pictures of 1914-15.
10. Hartley did occasionally make pure abstractions, such as Abstraction (1911), reproduced in Marsden Hartley, 1908-1942: The Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection, exh. cat. (San Francisco: Art Museum Association of America, 1983), p. 19, no. 8. Another painting similar in date to Composition is Abstraction: Blue, Yellow, and Green (c. 1913), reproduced in Levin, Synchromism, pl. 146.