Archive for April, 2009

The Milagro of the Mexican Suitcase

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2009 by Liz Hager


Robert Capa’s “Mexican” Suitcase.  photo © Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Gerda Taro, Air Raid Victim in the Morgue, Valencia, 1937.

Randy Kennedy’s article today in the NY Times was a reminder that life is an unpredictable, yet often miraculous, affair.

Against all rightful odds, some 3,500 negatives, shot by war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) and packed inside a flimsy cardboard boxes, survived a a cloak-and-dagger wartime journey. The suitcase of boxes passed through many hands in at least three countries and eventually landed in the possession of a Mexican general.  Sometime in the mid-90s Mexico City filmmaker Benjamin Tarver happened to see exhibit of Spanish Civil War pictures and connected them to the contents of the suitcase he had inherited from his aunt (depending on which account is accurate, either the widow or a close friend of the General). Tarver then wrote to a Queens College (CUNY) professor, an expert on the Spanish Civil War, to ask whether the college could help him catalog and exhibit the prints. The professor in turn contacted the curators at the International Center of Photography. After some years of negotiation with Tarver, ICP was able to retrieve the suitcase, which arrived on its doorstep last year. Miraculously the negatives were in good shape.

Curators at ICP are already heralding the contents of the suitcase as the “holy grail” of Capa’s oeuvre. Almost all the film is of the Spanish Civil War, shot in the years between May 1936 and Spring 1939. It represents an unprecedented cache of Capa’s reporting of that war, thousands of photographs that were previously thought lost forever. The images will add immeasurably to our understanding of both the war and this photographer’s unique talent. Further, over time even known Capa negatives and records have been separated and dispersed over many locations (or lost altogether), so the pictures in the suitcase should help scholars to add more accurate dates and notations to photographs already out there.

More astounding, the suitcase has yielded new photographs of Chim battle scenes, a genre for which the photographer was not previously known.

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Soldier, Córdoba Front, Spain,” 1936.

The biggest miracle of the suitcase, however, might prove be the trove of shots credited to Gerda Taro. Why? Scholars have long known that Taro published her pictures under the Capa name, but it has been nearly impossible to determine true attribution of the body of collaborative work for which Capa has received most of the credit. Until recently, Taro was best-known in the public eye for her romance with Capa. The negatives in the suitcase could change that.

Capa’s enormous success as a war photographer (he went on to photograph WW2, the second Sino-Japanese War, the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflic and the French action in Indochina) overshadows the nature of the collaboration between Capa and Taro during the Spanish Civil War.  It’s all too easy to forget Taro’s place in history:  she was the first woman to report on war from the front lines and a pioneer in establishing the now standard-method of shooting war from within its ranks. Unlike previous photographers, Roger Fenton for example, who typically positioned themselves on the sidelines and reported on the preparations or aftermath of battle, Capa and Taro jumped right into the action. They were passionate about the Republican cause and lived, marched, and went into battle with the troops.  At the time, Taro’s photos were published widely by the French leftist press; later some eventually made it into Life. Still more were undoubtedly published as “Caro”s.

Taro spared her viewers little. Along with shots of troops—in training, at rest, in action—were shots of the casualties of war, including civilians. As a body of work, they serve as a record of the action, the camaraderie, the boredom, and the brutality of war. Overall, they show us, as Susan Sontag observes ” This what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.”  (Regarding the Pain of Others, p.8)

Taro, born Gerta Pohorylle, was raised  Stuttgart and Leipzig.  She met photographer André Friedmann (born Endre Ernő Friedmann), a Hungarian photographer, in 1935 on the French island of Sainte Marguerite. Sometime in the spring of 1936 collaboratively they invented the American-sounding (i.e. Frank Capra) photographer Robert Capa (also “shark” in Hungarian), endowing the character with ability and prior credentials. The Garbo-Gerda Taro was also born.

Alas, Taro’s career was all-too brief.  In July 1937 she traveled with another photographer to a battle site located between Villanueva de la Cañada and Brunete, near Segovia. (The battle was immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.)  There, on the 25th, one day before her return to Paris, she found herself in the midst of a panicked retreat and jumped on the sideboard of a moving car to get away. It was hit by a Loyalist tank.  Taro died early the next morning in a field hospital. She was just days shy of her 27th birthday.

One hopes the Mexican suitcase will shed new light on the scope and scale of Taro’s work. One wishes that it will widely re-establish her rightful legacy in the pantheon of war photographers.

Wider Connections

Irme Schaber, Taro’s biographer  (Schaber’s portion begins at 3:20)

Trish Ziff—“The Mexican Suitcase”

Randy Kennedy—“The Capa Cache”

Gerda Taro: The Blonde of Brunete

Taro photographs in the suitcase

NY Times Taro slideshow

The (Other) 20th-Century Spanish Virtuoso

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on April 29, 2009 by Liz Hager


. . . Nothing but a painter! If you had been able to follow my life, step by step, at my side all the way, you would be convinced that I have never wanted to be, nor do I want to be, nor will I ever want to be anything but a painter. . .

—Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, 1913 interview


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Segovian Figures, 1912, oil on canvas, approximately 78 x 80″ (Museo Sorolla).

Though widely popular in Europe and America at the time of his death in 1923, Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla (y Bastida) has been largely ignored since then by art critics and historians outside his native country.  A follower of Manet, Sorolla’s reputation hasn’t sustained a similar level of acclaim, which is curious, for to this artist’s eye he was in every way as accomplished a painter as Manet. Many other painters of note, including Sargent and Thiebaud, have been influenced by Sorolla’s lyrical brushwork, broad but harmonious color palette, and virtuosic depictions of light. Indeed, the Sorolla techniques visible in many a contemporary realist painter.


Edouard Manet, The Fifer, 1866, oil on canvas, 63 x 38 5/8 ” (Musée d’Orsay).

Sorolla’s only crime may have been that, unlike his equally-prolific compatriot, Pablo Picasso, he resolutely chose not to live in Paris. France’s stranglehold on Western connoisseurship lasted more or less from the Baroque period until the mid-20th century, when the Abstract Expressionists managed to make New York the working center of the world. During this period a fistful of non-French artists have found their way to the eternal spotlight. Perhaps this was due to talent or sheer persistence, but often too the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time (and purchased by the right collector). What else would explain Sorolla’s present absence from the group of recognized world Masters?

Despite a recognized Spanish artistic tradition, which included the significant accomplishments of Velázquez, El Greco (an immigrant from Crete), and Goya, as well as his own considerable talent, Sorolla likely abdicated some measure of posthumous fame, by choosing to remain in Spain while the turn-of-the-century spotlight shined on Paris.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Horse’s Bath, 1909, oil on canvas, approximately (Museo del Prado).

Still, reputations can be remade. (One is reminded of Caravaggio.) And Sorolla’s lesser status in the annals of art history doesn’t diminish the grandeur of his achievement. Like the Impressionists, Sorolla was a dedicated plein-air painter. His signature style—thick and aggressive application of paint contrasted with areas of exposed canvas and virtuosic rendering of light and atmospheric effects—was closely linked to the Impressionists.

Diego Velázquez, Pope Innocent X,  1650,  oil on canvas. (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome).

Like his contemporaries, the Post-Impressionists, Sorolla aimed for a modern type of painting, although he found his way to that through the naturalist tradition, rather than increasingly-abstract means. It was this proclivity for naturalism that led first led Sorolla to Velázquez. But one suspects that it was also Valázquez’s exquisite treatment of light that captured the young artist’s attention.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Sewing the Sail, 1904, oil on canvas, approximately 36.5 x 51 ” (Colección Masaveu).

Though linked to these movements, Sorolla remained staunchly aloof from them.  Still one cannot deny that the artist pushed the depiction of light and color to vertiginous heights.

Born in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla showed early artistic talent. In a prophetic tale, he is reputed to have doodled endlessly during school, rather than learn his lessons. Formally trained from the age of 14, at 18 Sorolla left Valencia for Madrid, where he relentlessly copied Old Masters in the Prado. He is recorded as having made 16 copies alone of Velázquez paintings. He went on to study in Rome. Despite the early formal training, Sorolla didn’t hit his artistic stride until the 1890s. One sees the artist’s progression plainly in the chronology of the paintings in the Museo Sorolla collection.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, View of Avila, 1912, oil on canvas, 58 x 84 cm (Museo Sorolla).

Although best known for his luscious, luminous seaside scenes, Sorolla was a versatile painter, who rendered portraits of the high-bred and low-brow, everyday street scenes, and loads of landscapes. His works from 1904 onward display a prodigious command of a wide color palette.  His portraits of Spanish folk are at once a solemn and joyful chronicle of a uniquely Spanish tradition that look almost anthropological today. To make his folk depictions authentic, Sorolla often delved deeply into local customs and insisted upon personal accessories.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, La Siesta, 1911, oil on canvas, (Museo Sorolla).

John Singer Sargent too admired the work of Velázquez.  Sargent and Sorolla most likely met in 1900 at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where both were awarded medals for their work. Sorolla inscribed a small sketch for his painting Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance), one of the most popular at the Exposition, to Sargent. Sargent returned the favor by sending a small watercolor. In the work of both, one sees the similar insistence on hearty brushwork and close attention to capturing effects of light on their subjects.


John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloir, 1911, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 30″ (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

In the first decades of the 20th century,  Sorolla exhibits attracted huge crowds, both on the continent and in the United States. A special exhibition of  his paintings at the Gallerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1906 led to his appointment as Officer of the Legion of Honour. Wide introduction to the American public came in 1909 with a massively successful exhibit staged at the Hispanic Society in New York. The show, featuring more than 350 (!) of his works, reputedly drew 160,000 visitors over the course of its opening month.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Cathedral of Burgos in the Snow, 1910, oil on canvas, approximately 41 x 32.5″ (Museo Sorolla).

In fact, many consider Sorolla’s crowning work to be panoramic series of paintings in the Hispanic Society of America (New York), completed in 1920 just before a paralytic stroke ended his ability to paint. The work depicts the 49 Provinces of Spain, through their specific scenery, costumes and customs.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Rainbow, El Pardo, 1907, oil on canvas, approximately 24.5 x 36″ (Museo Sorolla).

This summer, Madrid’s Prado will present the first comprehensive solo exhibit of Sorolla’s work since 1963. Perhaps the reputation of the other 20th-century Spanish virtuoso will at last be secured.

Wider Connections

Sorolla in American collections: San Diego Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Sargent/Sorolla Exhibition (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2006)

Miles Mathis on Sargent/Sorolla

Edmund Peel—The Painter Sorolla

Mary Elizabeth Boone—Vistas de España

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , on April 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Axel von Gräf, Bogheh Harunieh Tomb in Toos, Mashhad, 1937.

The Museum of Ancient Civilizations
San Francisco State, Room 510 Humanities, corner Font & Tapia, SF
Caravan Across Persian: An Archaeological Tour of Iran
Ancient and medieval ceramics from Persia are juxtaposed with historical photographs of Iran in the 1930s, made by renowned German photographer Axel von Graefe. The exhibition features a collection of prehistoric Iranian ceramics from the California Academy of Sciences (Anthropology Department), and medieval Persian ceramics from the Matthew Higgins private collection. Through May 8.

Marc Chagall, Theater, 1920, gouache on canvas.

Contemporary Jewish Museum/Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949. Through Sept 7.

Asian Art Museum, SF. The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Tibet. Through May 10.

Singular Gems—Anish Kapoor at the Sackler

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on April 23, 2009 by Liz Hager



Anish Kapoor, S-Curve, 2006, polished steel, 32 feet (photo © the author).

File this post in the “Better Late Than Never” folder.  We admit gross dereliction of duty, possessed as we were in January by Inaugural Fever.  As a result of the mayhem, we overlooked posting on quite a number of the exceptionally good art offerings in our Nation’s Capital. Thankfully, we didn’t neglect everything—you’ll find Whistler at the Freer and Leo Villareal at the National Gallery among the Venetian Red pages. We we lucky to catch the Robert Frank retrospective—”Americans”—exhibition at the tail end of its run at the National Gallery. Fortunately for us, the show is coming to SF, so look for a posting in anticipation of that opening in May.

In the meantime, we are reminded that Anish Kapoor’s sculpture S-Curve will be in the entrance hall at the Sackler Gallery until mid July.  S-Curve is fashioned from two 16-foot-long pieces of polished steel placed that are placed back to back to form a convex and concave wall. In its construction, this work references the sculptures of Richard Serra’s, Band (2006) in particular. Further comparison is thwarted by the mirrored surface; images bounce back at us, making it impossible for us to really grasp the materialness of the sculpture.  As Kapoor once said: “The minimalists, of course, were very, very concerned with the idea that ‘What you saw was what you saw.’ That’s it, it’s there, nothing else. Now, I’m afraid I don’t believe that. I’m afraid I believe that what you see isn’t what you see. It’s never what you see. It never was what you see.” (Interview, Greg Cook, 6/2008).

The reflective curvature immediately evokes funhouse mirrors and their distortion of space. The distorted reflection of the space around it is alternately disorienting and fully engaging. It’s challenging to adjust your sight to the distortion, but then again the panoramic picture that morphs and changes with viewer movement presents infinite visual delight. The distorted reflection creates an additional dimension, the space in front of the sculpture, which is simultaneously real and illusionary.  Herein lies the fundamental genius of the piece—although the sculpture is solid and stationary, it is also fluid and dynamic.

Illusion is at work in S-Curve on another level. Like his other highly-reflective pieces (Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park is a predecessor), here Kapoor has pushed the boundaries of surface articulation, or, more precisely, lack thereof.  On these shiny surfaces the artist is nowhere in evidence. The irony of course is that many professionals labored mightily to produce a piece that looks untouched by human hands.

Perspectives (Contemporary Asian Art)”  until July 19, 2009. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Wider Connections

Mental Floss—Sculpture is an Heroic Art

Kapoor interview, Guggenheim Berlin

Big, Red & Shiny—Anish Kapoor at the ICA

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Site Work with tags , , on April 20, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

John Berggruen, 228 Grant Street SF—new work from Mark di Suvero


Reeves Gallery—Lucky Rapp “A Piece of My Mind” (through April 25)

SF Museum of Craft and Folk Art, 51 Yerba Buena Lane, SFInside/Outside, Artist’s Environments

Simple Pleasures—”The Botany of Nests” at Strybing Arboretum

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , on April 19, 2009 by Liz Hager


Beal—13 Great-taled Grackle

Sharon Beals, Nest of Great-Tailed Grackle, 2009, Digital Photograph (nest collection of Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology).

After viewing enough of a certain kind of contemporary art—the sort that’s usually accompanied by pseudo-erudite artists statements that all too often lead to brain knots—one yearns for art that can be appreciated without explanation. Art that is beautiful in its simplicity and simply beautiful.

Sharon Beals’ new photographic collection “The Botany of Nests,” is that kind of art.  The exhibit, at the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture just inside the Strybing Arboretum gates, consists of nearly 30 digital photographs, tender portraits of birds’ nests. But these are not just random birds’ nests. Without special permits, it is illegal for private citizens to possess most species of native birds, their feathers, eggs, or abandoned nests. Beals was lucky enough to get permission to photograph specimens from the collections of three institutions—the California Academy of Sciences, the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley.

This project was truly was a labor of love. Beals’ spent 18 months photographing nests. With special access to the collections, the artist moved a small working studio into each lab. She routinely worked long hours, often spending  nights in the museums until midnight to get the right shot.

Sharon Beals, Caspian Tern Nest, Mexico 1932, digital photograph 2009 (nest collection of Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology).

Many of the nests date back 75 or 100 years. Beals’ pared-down presentation of her subject matter creates a subdued yet majestic atmosphere that ultimately dignifies the subjects as the artifacts that they are.  As a collection, the photographs are a wondrous record of avian construction habits.  In the presence of these photographs, it is hard not to believe that birds possess a heightened sense of aesthetics. (Or is it just the ultimate case of form following function?)

Aside from their aesthetic beauty,  the nests hold fascinating insight into bird behavior.  The Caspian Tern hides its eggs in plain site among the shells along tide’s edge. The  House Finch, not fussy about the origin of its building materials, ironically used castoffs from a human house —sewing scraps, plastic, paper and cellophane—making it perhaps the ultimate recycler in the bird world.  The photo of the House Wren tells a sad tale of a nest abandoned; on the other hand, one can’t help but be fascinated by this macabre reminder of the life and death struggle that goes on largely unseen by human eyes. The Barn Swallow specimen, collected in 1937 in China, arrived at the Academy of Sciences wrapped in Japanese newsprint. Thus it became a record of the Japanese occupation of China, as a result unwittingly intertwined with human history.

Taken together, this collection is not only a gorgeous aesthetic accomplishment, but an irresistible archeological record of avian civilizations. The photographs bring a hidden world into our consciousness; photographs like these will be the only evidence of bird habitats available to most of us humans.


Sharon Beals, Altamira Oriole, digital photograph 2009 (nest collection of California Academy of Sciences).

And this is precisely the photographer’s goal.  In conceiving of this project, Beals’ was influenced by Scott Weidensaul’s Pulitzer-Prize finalist, Living on the Wind, which details the migratory habits of birds. She hopes her photographs will heighten awareness birds habits and disappearing habitats. Her artist’s statement is simple:  “to keep the common birds common.”

“The Botany of Nests”
Helen Russell Crocker Library of Horticulture (Strybing Arboretum)
through June 30th.

Wider Connections

Sharon Beals

Scott Weidensaul —Living in the Wind

Rosamund Purcell—Egg & Nest

Winged Migration

Next Generation Post Minimalism—Ranjani Shettar at SFMOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on April 16, 2009 by Liz Hager



Ranjani Shettar, Sing
, 2008-9, steel, muslin, kasimi, tamarind kernel
powder paste, shellac, and lacquer, dimensions variable. (Photo ©

Though consisting of only six works, Ranjani
Shettar’s current exhibition of recent works at SFMoMA shows off
the depth and range of her capabilities. The sculptural
installations and prints on display demonstrate her considerable
technical agility. But it’s her wondrous imagination with its
complex references to art and the world around her that really
impresses. These references are often subtle to the point of
abstruseness. Luckily, though, initial enjoyment of the
pieces doesn’t require a knowledge or understanding of all the
references. The lacy Sing Along consists of
half a dozen or so wrapped wire pieces, all of which protrude from
the gallery walls or hang from the ceiling. Hanging is a Shettar
conceit. In Just a bit more (2005), the
artist used bee’s wax and thread dipped in tea to express the
beauty in humble materials; in Sun-sneezers blow light
(2007-8) she first used the materials in Sing
Along to contrast the fragility of bubble forms with the strength
of the underlying armature. Shettar has remarked previously that
the purpose of hanging a work is to engage gravity in its ultimate
shape (downward tension dictates). Still, in regard to
inspiration for hanging sculpture, one can’t help thinking of Calder‘s
wire figures. The Sing Along grouping beckons
viewers into its space; it creates an active environment with the
gallery room, which promotes viewer exploration (rather than
passive gazing) of the work. In this and other regards, Shettar
carries on in the tradition of many post-minimalist artists, which
though not linked together tightly enough to form a movement, have
concerned themselves with incorporating the handmade with the
repetitive, mechanicalness of traditional Minimalist work. Among
those post-minimalist practices which Shettar adheres to are the
use of every day objects (Tom
), a focus on the sheer tactile beauty of an
object (Anish
), as well construction of abstract forms through
the hand-made “touch” (Eva
, Martin
). Shettar typically mixes industrial materials
with traditional craft techniques, although she downplays too much
meaning of the latter in her work. In an interview last year
with John
, she remarked: ” I am constantly observing
materials around me and looking at possibilities. For me my
materials do not have to always come from an art supply store, they
could be from anywhere. I often look at craft material and also use
craft techniques as they are generations old and refined. I use
materials that can convey and add to my idea. . . Every
material has uses and associations that are particular to each one
of them and so they bring in their own meaning into works.” In the
case of Sing Along, a wire armature is wrapped
with muslin coated in tamarind paste, a glue used both in textile
printing in India and in painting wood by the toymakers of Kinnala.
Shettar made a special pilgrimage to this village to learn the
technique. The textile element is subtle; without a close look at
the piece, the pieces might be mistaken for iron or patina bronze.
Sing Along takes its inspiration from the
koel, the long-tailed cuckoo common in SE Asia and Australia,
which, no doubt because of its distinctive call, was at one time a
popular Indian cagebird. The koel is referred to as a “brood
parasite,” because the female usually lays her single egg in the
nests of other birds, sometimes removing existing host eggs
beforehand. The host bird raises the fledging along with her
chicks, apparently no one ever the wiser. Other than the
black finish of the sculpture, which mimics the male bird’s coat,
there is nothing that overtly references this particular bird.
Armed with deeper knowledge, one wonders what about the bird
specifically inspired Shettar—was it the female’s speckled coat,
its parasitic nature, the call? No matter, birds generally
are in evidence throughout the piece. Once the source of the title
is clear, feather shapes and spread wings abound.


Ranjani Shettar, Sing
(detail). (Photo © author.)

Truth be
told, however, this viewer walked away from Sing
obliviously satisfied in the belief that the
installation referenced salmon swimming arduously through glinting
rushing streams toward their spawning grounds. Therein lies the
clever beauty of Shettar’s pieces; no matter what your frame of
reference, they still speak to you. Note: Don’t miss Shettar’s
Me, no, not me, buy me, wear me, have me, me, no, not
piece on SFMoMA’s new rooftop garden.
Wider Connections More Ranjani
Holland Carter—Art
in Review: Ranjani Shettar
Shettar at the Museum
of Modern Art, Dallas

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Sculpture with tags , on April 13, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a  jump start on a week filled with art.

Stephen Wirtz Gallery,  39 Geary Street—Melanie Pullen “Violent Times”


Dolby Chadwick, 210 Post, SF—Kim Froshin (until May 2).

ArtZone 461, 461 Valencia, SF—Linda Raynsford (until May 24).

A Sense of Place: Marsden Hartley in Berlin

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places with tags , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2009 by Liz Hager


marsden hartley, lighthouse

Marsden Hartley, Lighthouse, 1915, oil on canvas, 30 x 40″ (courtesy Christie’s).

Marsden Hartley was largely misunderstood during his lifetime. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the artist was either woefully out of step with or gloriously ahead of his time. Undoubtedly, much of this mismatch was the result of Hartley’s eccentric personality, peripatetic lifestyle, and restless experimentation with different styles. The cause of his art was certainly not helped by Clement Greenberg, who in the 1940s did much to sideline the artist through his dismissal of the place of the “Stieglitz artists” in modern American art. (Greenberg’s championing of  John Marin as the link in the stylistic chain from Impressionists to Abstract Expressionists had perhaps everything to do with his desire to unseat Stieglitz as the reigning monarch of modernism.)

Perhaps not so amazingly then, there have only been three comprehensive shows of the artist’s work since his death in 1943.  But Hartley’s early relegation to the dustbin of art history has been our gain. Unlike others of the Stieglitz circle (O’Keefe springs to mind) his work hasn’t been overexposed to near trivialization.  Thankfully, Hartley has been resurrected to his rightful place in the history of modernist art.  To the unjaded eye his work still looks way ahead of its time.

To be sure, the painter’s catalog is painfully uneven. His lesser work ranges from derivative to just plain uninspired.  But Hartley could soar too, and his best works still pack a punch that offers an unvarnished emotional view into a bygone era.


Marsden Hartley, Painting No.47, Berlin, 1914-1915, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 5/8″ (courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden).

Hartley was deeply imbued with the Transcendentalist concept of “place.”  Though often referred to as “the painter from Maine,” the artist was actually an extensive traveller, a restless seeker of spirituality. It was Berlin during the early years of the First World War that coaxed the first true rays of brilliance from the painter, providing him with emotional and creative sustenance.

In 1912 the artist embarked on his first European journey, financed by Stieglitz. During his stay in France, the artist frequented the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, where he fell under the spell of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso.  In the spring of 1913, he moved to Berlin.  “I like its ultra-modernity and I like the calmness of the people.” he wrote in a postcard to Stieglitz (1/1/1913.) As he settled inspired him: “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,” he wrote to Stieglitz, shortly after arriving in the German capital. (Postcard to Stieglitz, 2/1/1913.)

The city itself was not Hartley’s subject; the intense stimulation provided by the city encouraged him to look within for his subject matter. Certainly, Blaue Reiter members Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, whom Hartley met in Berlin, deeply influenced his thoughts on spirituality and art.  However, on a visceral level, it was the masculinity of a capital city teeming with military officers that seduced him. Further, in Berlin’s prominent gay subculture Hartley must have felt a true sense of belonging.

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, oil on canvas, 68 1/4 x 41 3/8 ” (courtesy: Metropolitan Museum; Alfred Stieglitz collection).

The outbreak of war in August of 1914 and the subsequent loss on the Western Front of his close friend and probable lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, threw Hartley into deep grief. The artist discarded an existing project and began pouring his feelings onto 12 canvases. Known as the “War Motif” series, this body of work would become his passionate memorial to von Freyburg and, by extension, to the generation of men who surrendered their lives in the trenches. Contemporary Wilfred Owen equally captured the sentiment of sacrificial love in his poem Greater Love: “Till the fierce Love they bear/Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.”

The horrors of trench warfare were still to come as Hartley began his project in late 1914. In the first year of the Great War, armies went to battle as they had for centuries, with pageantry and fanfare. Hartley’s iconography—Germanic flags, company ensigns, mystical numbers, von Freyburg and his own initials, the Iron Cross—perfectly captures the essence of the 19th century military, while the abstract jumble of forms mirrors the chaos that the closely-connected Europeans must have felt in those years.  Rendered in flatly colored forms and energetic brushstrokes, these paintings still look altogether more modern than most other American work of the time.

Perhaps then the true genius of the Berlin paintings is that they at once capture an old world dissolving sorrowfully into history and herald a dynamic modern world to come.

* * *

In December 1915, amid the growing tensions between Germany and America, Hartley was forced to leave Berlin. Re-entry into American culture was difficult for him, not in the least because the subject matter of his “War Motif” paintings was interpreted as glorifying the German cause, causing many to question his patriotism.

Wider Connections

Alfred Stieglitz portrait of Hartley

Peter Schjeldhal on Marsden Hartley in The New Yorker

Marsden Hartley & American Modernism

Roberta Smith—Marsden Hartley’s World

My Dear Stieglitz—The Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz

Pat Barker—Regeneration

First World War Poetry

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , on April 6, 2009 by Liz Hager

Venetian Red inaugurates a new feature in honor of “dark” Monday, traditionally the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we will highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a  jump start on a week filled with art. 


Crown Point Press (20 Hawthorne Street, SF)—photogravures from Susan Middleton. Through April 7. Coverage at ChezNamasteNancy


Cain Schulte (714 Guerrero St. SF)—Will Marino until April 25. Coverage at Bay Area ArtQuake.



SFMoMA—new work from Ranjani Shettar. Shettar mixes contemporary sculpture techniques with ancient Indian textile wrapping to form airy sculptures that evoke water-environments. Coverage at SF Examiner.


KQED “Spark”—Inside Banghra (Wednesday, 4/8/09, 7:30). Venetian Red on Bhangra.

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