This autumn Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
presents the biggest exhibition so far in Europe of the American painter Marsden Hartley, an important figure in American art history. It is the first time in 60 years that a retrospective exhibition of the artist can be seen on European soil. The works in the exhibition have been borrowed from the greatest American museums and private collections. The exhibition is thus a large-scale, ambitious venture for Louisiana.
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) belongs among the first major modernist artists in 20th-century America; he was part of an artistic elite through which he moved both in Europe and in his home country. All the same, he is an undiscovered spot on the art-historical world map viewed from a present-day European perspective. Perhaps because of the multifaceted nature of his oeuvre, which has made it difficult to place him in the history of art, but probably also because there has been no retrospective presentation of Hartleys works in Europe since the beginning of the 1960s.
During his adult life, Hartley never lived for more than ten months in the same place. Instead, he travelled in the USA and between the USA and Europe. He was a restless human being and a restless artist. The restlessness was undoubtedly a way of protecting himself from a loneliness he could not escape. Hartley was gay, which in early 20th century made intimate relationships difficult.
Hartleys works never remained unchanged by the people he met, the authors he read and the art he saw. He often changed track and gave the highest priority to artistic experimentation. In the 1920s, he even criticized his great idols Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso for having become too comfortable and repetitive in their painting. Hartley himself never settled down either in art or in life. His unceasing transatlantic voyages make him an important element in the understanding of the relationship between the art scenes in Europe and in the USA, between which his oeuvre forms a bridge.
Both in the USA and Europe Hartley situated himself at the centre of the art world and its currents. In New York, he was represented by the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz in the famous gallery 291, where other major contemporary Americans such as Arthur Dove, John Marin and Georgia OKeeffe also exhibited. When he went to Paris, he frequented Gertrude Stein, attended her salons and met artists like Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso. In Germany, he quickly got to know the avant-garde artists around the periodical Der Blaue Reiter and was able to discuss his art with figures such as Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and Franz Marc. The latter of these invited Hartley to participate in the epoch-making Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon in Berlin in 1913.
As a contrast to the intense experiences in Berlin, Paris and New York, throughout his life Hartley also sought out a hermit-like existence amidst nature in the south of France, New Mexico and not least in his childhood state Maine. In the years towards the end of his life, he finally returned home to Maine and painted some of his best pictures there.
Hartleys painting was profoundly affected on the one hand by the European avant-garde, especially German Expressionism, and on the other by the great American philosophers and writers from his native New England: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and not least Walt Whitman. Through Emerson and Thoreau Hartley acquired a mission as an artist: to describe the spirit of the world; and in Whitman he found a soulmate who showed him how he could express his love and his desire for men in his art.
An artists oeuvre fully unfolded
The exhibition Marsden Hartley The earth is all I know of wonder takes visitors to the museum along on all of Hartleys journeys from 1905 until his death in 1943. It shows more than 110 paintings and over 20 drawings. Moreover, the exhibition will attach importance to Hartleys ample production of poems and essays. Finally, a film consisting of interviews with seven living artists will underscore the continued importance of the oeuvre today.
The exhibition is divided into six chapters that chronologically describe Hartleys artistic process with links to both biographical and contextualizing material. Chapter 1 is an account of Hartleys beginnings as an artist and the great influence that European modernism had on him, and is focused on the years 1905-1912, when Hartley primarily painted in Maine and New York. Chapter 2 deals with Hartleys stays in Paris and Berlin in the years 1912-1915, his meeting with Gertrude Stein and with the group of artists around the periodical Der Blaue Reiter. Chapter 3 is the story of Hartleys return to the USA after the outbreak of the First World War, and his attempt to approach the idea of an autonomous American art in the years 1916-1921. Chapter 4 speaks of the years 1921-1931 when Hartley stayed in Europe again; in Berlin, Paris and especially Provence, where he followed in the footsteps of his great hero, Paul Cézanne. Chapter 5 is about Hartleys last three journeys abroad in the years 1932-1935, about his encounter with Mexican art, and his last stay in Germany. Chapter 6 follows Hartley in his final years, 1935-1943, first in Nova Scotia, where a tragedy changed his life and art, and later in his childhood Maine, to which he returned after having avoided it for 25 years.
The exhibition is curated by museum curator Mathias Ussing Seeberg.