Indian Fantasy, Marsden Hartley’s ecstatic dream of a Native American paradise and one of the glories of the Museum’s modern collection, is 100 years old this summer. Unfortunately, the party will have to be held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the painting is featured in a brilliant exhibition, Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913–1915. The exhibition was organized by the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in collaboration with LACMA. I was fortunate to be in Berlin in late June for the last days of the show at the Neue Nationalgalerie.
Believe it or not, though regarded on this side of the Atlantic as perhaps the greatest of this country’s modernist pioneers, Hartley is virtually unknown in Europe. This even though many of his most powerful and inventive paintings were created during two and a half years spent on and off in Berlin (1913–15). In the German capital, Hartley first found his voice as an American artist. He reveled both in the dynamism of the metropolis and in the parading pageantry of the Kaiser’s army, everywhere on show in the days leading up to and after the outbreak of World War I. Berlin intoxicated Hartley, but he was ever aware of himself as a foreigner. (I cannot imagine Hartley declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”). Hartley’s status as an outsider jolted his ambition, liberating his imagination toward new ways of picturing the intensity of his inner life. That was the main takeaway of the exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie.
Marsden Hartley: Die deutschen Bilder, 1913–1915, was the first major exhibition devoted to Hartley’s art in Europe since 1961. By all accounts it was a revelation to the German public. Among the first-magnitude stars of the exhibition was our own Indian Fantasy, arguably the finest, certainly the boldest, painting of a series employing Native American themes and symbols and executed in the fateful summer of 1914. For me it is always a surprise, not always pleasant, to see one of our paintings in a different context. Happily the curator in Berlin treated Indian Fantasy as the centerpiece of a gallery, flanking it with two other paintings of the series. Surrounded by works dating from the same extraordinary moment in Hartley’s career, I was able to see the artist building a new vocabulary of forms and symbols, testing structures and color combinations, abandoning some ideas while elaborating on others. He was reaching for something, radiant and profoundly hopeful, while outside his studio window, the Guns of August flared and the world went mad.