Archive for Marsden Hartley

Northern Exposure: The Landscapes of David Milne

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by Liz Hager

David Milne, Dark Shore Reflected, Bishop’s Pond, 1920
Watercolor on Paper, 38.8 x 55.6 cms
(Private Collection)

Feeling is the power that drives art. There doesn’t seem to be a more understandable word for it, though there are others that give something of the idea: aesthetic emotion, quickening, bringing to life. Or call it love; not love of a man or woman or home or country or any material thing, but love without an object—instransitive love.

—David B. Milne, “Feeling in Painting,” 1948

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The Titans of 19th and early-20th century landscape art were amply represented in last summer’s meaty exhibition “Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscapes 1860-1918” at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  The roster of American painters and photographers was an impressive one—Frederick Church, Albert BierstadtThomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe,  Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward S. Curtis, Carlton Watkins, and Alfred Stieglitz were among the many whose work filled a seemingly endless array of gallery rooms.

For this American visitor, however, the most exciting discoveries in the exhibition were to be found in the ranks of the Canadian artists, a group not as well known below the border. By arranging the exhibition according to six major themes, the curators provided visual evidence of the ways in which Canadian artists were influenced by styles and events in the US over the 60 plus years covered by the exhibition.  But this organizing principle also made evident clear points of differentiation and, in doing so, highlighted the essentially Canadian approach to landscape art.

David Milne, White, the Waterfall (The White Waterfall), 1921
Oil on canvas, 45.8 x 56.3 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

Lacking the notion of Manifest Destiny, Canadian artists were never seduced by epic proportions and panoramic vistas. The talented Group of Seven, working in the first quarter of the 20th century, focused on exploring the unique quality of the Canadian landscape.  As a group, their paintings evoke intimate, understated beauty. Additionally, Emily Carr’s soul-full renditions of native peoples and nature were a lovely surprise. American painter Allen Tupper True came to mind as a kindred spirit.

David Milne (1882-1953), however, was far and away the most exhilarating find of that summer day. Present in Milne’s work are the powerful sirens created by Matisse—vibrant line work, sinuous and often voluptuous forms, as well as daring color choices. And yet Milne managed to harness these elements to produce a uniquely expressive statement; his work illuminates the remarkable beauty to be found in the ordinary corners of the natural world.

David Milne, Black and White Trees and Buildings, 1915/6
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 61.5 cm
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

A contemporary of the Group of Seven (although not a member) Milne, was every bit as talented, but never attained commensurate public recognition in his lifetime. By choice, he led an often-solitary and financially-impoverished life. Voluminous letters make clear the extent to which Milne chose artistic expression over financial success, though he worried mightily about providing for his family.  As David P. Silcox observes in his David Milne: An Introduction to His Life and Art: for Milne “the making of art meant following a solitary track, not joining art movements or societies, even if it meant living for many years in relative obscurity.”

Milne attended The Art Students’ League in 1904.  Although he attempted a career in fine art afterward, earning an income soon necessitated full time work as a commercial illustrator.  One of only three Canadians, he exhibited five paintings in the 1913 Armory show. In 1915 he exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. These must have been rays of affirmation for the young artist.

David Milne, Side Door, Clarke’s House, c.1923
Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 40.7 cm
(Courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Milne’s New York experience was interrupted by World War I. Having joined the Canadian army too late to see action, Milne was sent just after the Armistice to record his impressions of the French and Belgian battlefields for the Canadian War Memorials program. Upon his return to the United States the artist became increasingly more reclusive, relocating from New York to the solitude of the Berkshire and Adirondack Mountains.

Success eluded him over the ensuing decade, however, and in 1928 he moved to a series of locations both outside Toronto and in more remote, rural Ontario. The years of the Great Depression were highly productive ones for Milne. He painted a huge numbers of landscapes, the occasional interior or still life, and, beginning in the late 1930s, an increasing number of fantasy and Biblical scenes. This shift to  “spiritual” concerns corresponded with an almost exclusive return to the watercolor medium. For the remainder of his life Milne produced very few oil landscapes.

David Milne, Painting Place III, 1930
Oil on canvas, 51.3 x 66.4 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Vincent Massey Bequest)

In the last years of his life, Milne was diagnosed with cancer. He sketched and painted until the end, when finally a virulent stroke took his life at the end of 1953. He is buried in an unmarked grave in a Toronto cemetery.

Fortunately, since his death, David Milne’s legacy has become better understood. After Milne’s death, art critic Clement Greenberg remarked:

To claim that Milne was arguably Canada’s ‘greatest painter’ is not extravagant. . . I would class him with such as Marin and Hopper in my own country. But he can hold his own anywhere.

(Letter to David Silcox 12/18/1991, from Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne)

Milne is remembered as the inventor of the multiple place color drypoint (a process similar to etching that does not require acid bath).  The National Gallery of Canada and other institutions have organized retrospectives since his death. The Metropolitan and British museums presented a comprehensive exhibition of Milne’s watercolors in 2005; in fact, in the last decade the British Museum began to acquire a number of Milne works.

This American hopes for more Northern exposure in the years to come.

Wider Connections

David Milne cybergallery at National Gallery of Canada
David P. Silcox—Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne
Group of Seven repository—McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Katherine Lochnan—David Milne Watercolours
Maureen Mullarkey—“Gilding the Lily” (review of the “Painting Toward Light” Milne exhibition)

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

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-hartleye28094painting-no-47-berlin-1914-1915-oil-on-canvas-hirshhorn

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

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