Revisiting (and Revising) Home: ‘Marsden Hartley’s Maine’ at the Met Breuer
By Andrew Koenig, Contributing Writer, April 20, 2017
What’s most interesting about the stark, expressive works featured in “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” on display at the Met Breuer through June 18, is the interplay between representation and memory. For Hartley, Maine was a place to leave in exile and to return to, and the oscillation between coming and going makes for a body of work which gives us a place of the mind. “It is not down in any map; true places never are,” Melville writes in Moby-Dick of place’s location somewhere between the mind and the world, and Hartley’s Maine is a true place. His path towards discovering it is not without missteps, but the end result is spare and even sublime.
The missteps took place largely in the early stage of Hartley’s career. These paintings, largely reformulations of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, sometimes work, sometimes don’t. Emulation of foreign masters was a habit Hartley took a long time to kick. Partly this is because of his obsessive focus on self-fashioning, which meant that his image as an artist at times eclipsed his actual artwork. An Alfred Stieglitz portrait from 1916 shows the man looking wild-eyed and handsomely disheveled—not at all how you might expect a Lewiston-born Mainer to look. Hartley marries a New England personality to a European sensibility, but sometimes you wish he wouldn’t wear it so much on his sleeve.
Hartley later came to abandon his Europhilia and regard Maine as an artistic subject that could be approached on its own terms. He said to Stieglitz in mid-life, “I want so earnestly a ‘place’ to be.” Regionalism took a hold on the artist, as expressed in his 1937 essay, “On the Subject of Nativeness—A Tribute to Maine.”
Sometimes this native sentiment leads Hartley astray. In his depictions of the men of Maine, Hartley unfortunately falls prey to the prejudices of his time. Using the language of homoerotic fascism, Hartley depicts the “race” of “true beaut” Maine natives as oversized supermen. The results fall somewhere between Nazi-era sculpture and an L.L. Bean catalogue; the ruddy-faced, buff figures tell us little other than where exactly a discredited ideal of race intersected with Hartley’s sexuality. Bodily fixation almost engorges these paintings, is too much for canvas and paint to stand. The men get ever tanner, ever brawnier, till they dwarf even themselves (“On the Beach, ” “Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine”); it is the same surfeit that makes bodybuilders distinctly unappealing.
In the landscapes, however, his regionalist bent moves his work in new and exciting directions. In his 1938 “Robin Hood Cove, Georgetown, Maine,” Hartley paints a glassy, sharp, and quiet meditation reminiscent of Winslow Homer’s watercolors of Maine. “Smelt Brooks Falls,” a 1937 painting of waterfalls with a Frank Lloyd Wright–like architecture, shows us something more mature than Hartley’s early impressionist attempts. He has studied his subject. The falls, terse and almost static, give us the heft of contiguous America’s northernmost state. The quiet immensity of these falls is later writ large in “The Wave,” “Evening Storm, Schoodic Maine,” and “Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine No. 2,” which depict the sublime breakers of the rocky Maine shore.
Developing this stark vocabulary in his landscapes, and leaving behind the missteps of the early works and the figure paintings, Hartley communicates something deep and perhaps inarticulable about place. The wave paintings in particular are works of revisitation, engaging not only with Maine but also Hartley’s memory of it. Similarly, in the portraits of Mount Katahdin, we see an American version of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral or Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. (The latter had a strong effect on Hartley.) Hartley paints the same mountain in November, in winter, in autumn, each iteration recording the minute tremors of emotion of the artist’s attempt to lend transient seasonal splendor a lasting form. The magisterial silence of these New England landscapes, full of the pent-up emotion and vigor that spoiled some of his other work, makes a persuasive case that, in Marsden Hartley, Maine indeed found its bard.
Marsden Hartley’s Maine runs through June 18, 2017. For more information or to purchase tickets click here.
Cover: Marsden Hartley: ‘City Point, Vinalhaven’ (1937–38), oil on commercially prepared paperboard (academy board), 181/4 x 243/8 in. (46.4 x 61.9 cm), Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation; courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.