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From the Collection: Marsden Hartley's Portrait

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Marsden Hartley's Portrait, 1914-15, is one of twelve paintings in his War Motif series. Made in Berlin during the artist's first stay in this, his beloved city of military pageant and masculine spectacle, the War Motif paintings depict the city and commemorate Hartley's companion and lover Karl von Freyburg, a German officer who perished in the early days of the first World War. The style and execution of Portrait is akin to Picasso's synthetic cubism of the same moment. In fact, Hartley owes a great debt to the Spanish-born, Paris-based modernist innovator whose work he knew from his stay in Paris in 1912 where he intersected with such cultural lights as Gertrude and Leo Stein and also the sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and his cousin, Karl von Freyburg. It was this German pair who introduced Hartley to Berlin.

Portrait is both a lament for Hartley's lost partner and a celebration of the vibrant city that was their home. Hartley utilized symbolic forms to memorialize von Freyburg and their personal attachment. Such symbols include the cross at center bottom, which references the Iron Cross awarded Von Freyburg posthumously, and the numeral 4, which was the soldier's infantry number and the artist's house number in Berlin. The letter E painted at the lower left of the cross connects the artist to von Freyburg through its referral to both men--E is the first letter of Hartley's original first name (Edmund) and the letter sewn into the shoulder epaulette of many German army uniforms. Also present in the canvas are images of a Berlin's vibrant military culture that was much admired by Hartley. This can be seen in the black, white, and red lines that wave like the German flag through the center of the painting and in the abstracted image of the plumed helmet of Germany's Imperial period in the canvas's upper center.

Berlin was in the end, however, more than a triumphant spectacle of order and might for Hartley. It was also a place of personal liberation in that it was arguably the first modern city to tolerate and accommodate a gay culture. Even if a pale version of what today we would call a liberated attitude about homosexuality, Berlin in the early years of the twentieth century was home to some of the first voices and policies of tolerance on record. Although Hartley loved the city and the life it allowed him, because of political pressures he necessarily returned to the United States in 1915. Hartley never really got over either von Freyburg or Berlin--echoes of both are visible in his written and artistic work ever after.


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