A painting by Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) from the Jacob Alkow collection at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Mont Sainte-Victoire (1927), is a work of personal expression as well as the embodiment of something universal. It is an image of an inner and external place, of longing, of beginning and end. Its exhibition next to another painting by Hartley from the same collection – Mechanics Fixing a Truck Engine (1936–40) – renders present the tension in his oeuvre between observation of nature as an expression of the sublime and depictions of man as a social creature with transcendental aspirations.
These paintings served as a starting point for a journey between images and ideas – in painting, photography, cinema, music and words; a variety of materials which, accompanying the paintings in the exhibition space, offer different resonances of meanings. Collectively, they outline Hartley’s biographical and creative path, which links together a pursuit of self-discovery and a quest for spiritual discovery.
Peter Handke, the twentieth-century German writer and screenwriter, describes the artist’s mission in his book Slow Homecoming, in the text titled “The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire” – a mountain that Paul Cézanne often painted, and Hartley too, in his wake – as one of turning the landscape into an art of transcendence. He writes about nature, the journey, homecoming, and childhood as expressions of a yearning for the existential redemption inherent in art. This idea is taken further in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, Wings of Desire, whose script Handke helped to write. In its opening sequence Handke reads his poem, “Song of Childhood.” It serves as a recurring motif in this film, in which the aspiration for transcendence and for the sublime and the act of memory are bound together, encapsulating the childhood innocence and human suffering, angels and humans.
The founder of the transcendentalist movement in America, which emerged in New England in the nineteenth century, was the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), who promoted an ethic of self-improvement and individual authority over oneself in a process of introspection – as opposed to appealing to a religious or other authority – while imparting value to man and nature. A poem by him is included in the show. The writer, poet, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was close to Emerson and his ideas, and the exhibition presents an excerpt from his famous book Walden, written in 1854. The poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892), too, was influenced by Emerson and his philosophy, which states that man must seek God within himself and live in unity with nature. His poems, one of which is also included, express the exploration of the link between the physical world of the body and nature and a transcendental entity that enables life in this world.
American landscape photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1884) frequently photographed American landscapes in black and white, through a lens that he developed expressly for the purpose, which emphasizes the transcendence of nature. His mountain views present a lofty primal beauty that is both intimidating and wild. The photographs of Paul Strand (1890–1976), one of the greatest American modernist photographers of Hartley’s time, highlight the social power of documentary photography. His photograph titled Old Fisherman, Gaspe, Canada was taken in 1936, when Hartley was living with a Canadian fishing family, whom he commemorated in many paintings.
The paintings of the French painter Georges Rouault (1871–1958), depicting downtrodden people in a style reminiscent of Christian icons, also link together the sublime and the mundane – like Hartley’s later paintings, which sought to resolve the unrelenting tension in his life.
In addition, looking at Hartley’s work, one can imagine the musical score Appalachian Spring by American composer Aaron Copland (1900–1990), that premiered in 1944, a year after Hartley’s death. This work combines popular American motifs with an impressionistic portrayal of the connection between man and landscape, as an expression of spiritual sublimity. Symbolically, this piece might be seen as the soundtrack of Hartley’s life. At the end of his life, he often painted Mount Katahdin, which is the symbol of Maine – where Hartley was born, and where he also died. In his life journey, it stood as a key symbol of his constant search for identity and home, place and belonging, and of the connection that he sought throughout his life between the earthly and the sublime.
Marsden Hartley, a painter identified with early American modernism, gave expression to the emerging American identity of the early twentieth century through monumental, lofty landscapes and depictions of human figures. These topics also preoccupied him as a poet and essayist. He was born Edmund Hartley to English immigrants in 1877, in the state of Maine in New England. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Alfred Stieglitz exhibited his works at the 291 Gallery in New York, alongside other American modernist photographers and painters, as well as European painters such as Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, whose work was being exhibited in the United States for the first time. This is also how Hartley gained his first introduction to the European avant-garde.
Throughout his life, Hartley suffered from financial hardship and emotional crises. As a homosexual growing up in a Puritan society, he suffered both from selfalienation and alienation from his environment. In 1912, he began traveling throughout Europe over several years (during which time he occasionally returned to the United States), where he acquired the name of an artist and a poet. During that time, his work increasingly featured elements of the sublime and symbols related to German mysticism. During World War I, his lover, a German officer, was killed, plunging him into a great personal crisis. In 1913, Hartley exhibited at the Armory Show in New York, but the overtly German imagery in his paintings meant that his work was interpreted as pro-German, which heightened his sense of alienation and non-belonging. In 1915, his work was exhibited in Germany, to some acclaim, and he became linked to the Der Blue Reiter group of artists. The critics detected influences of Australian and Indian-American tribes in his work. After traveling to Mexico, where he became acquainted with the local art and underwent ritual experiences that strengthened his sense of a connection between one’s body and the land, he arrived at Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, France, 1926, inspired by Cézanne’s paintings of that region.
Cézanne painted the bald mountain dozens of times. Inspired by the Japanese painter Hokusai and his series of prints from the nineteenth century, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, the mountain in Cézanne’s paintings underwent a process of abstraction. He limited himself to four colors – purple, green, ocher, and blue – and translated the mountain’s geological structure into color surfaces that create a composition of geometrical shapes and contrasts of color, and a perspective created by a combination of warm and cold colors. In the wake of Cézanne’s famous paintings, many other painters painted the mountain, including Hartley, who based the compositions in his mountain paintings on the use of color.
From 1935 to 1936, Hartley lived with a family of fishermen and land workers in Nova Scotia, Canada, where, in his fifties, he found the sense of belonging that he had sought since childhood. He saw in their lives the primacy, innocence and simplicity of those described by Ralph Waldo Emerson – traits similar to those that attracted him in Indian culture at the start of his professional career, and in Mexico – and began to highlight issues such as family, belonging, place, and land. During these years he obsessively painted human figures – laborers and fishermen depicted as religious icons. However, after two members of the fisherman’s family died in a fishing accident – one of whom Hartley had been in love with – the artist decided to return to his native state, Maine, where he lived out the last third of his life.
After a long journey from the local to the universal – a quest for a style of painting and writing in tune with his search for a personal, sexual, and national identity – Hartley returned home, to the local, and his painting was transformed. This is evident both in his paintings of the mountains and the scenery – particularly in his return to the primary landscape of his birthplace – and in his portrayals of the laborers. During this period, Hartley became one of the leading painters of the American religious movement. Unlike his 1927 painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire, where he had flattened the landscape and created surfaces bordering on abstraction, in the paintings of Mt. Katahdin, from 1938 onwards, he depicted it as a sublime spectacle. These paintings maintain a tension between the wild and the aesthetic, and between modernism and Puritan conservatism. The painting Mechanics Fixing a Truck Engine, created after the tragedy that had struck the fisherman’s family, belongs to Hartley’s religious painting period, informed by a spiritual search in the everyday lives of hard-working people, and might also be seen as part of the American Social Realism of those years. All the shapes in the painting – the laborers and their surroundings – are accentuated by black outlines and are almost flat, and the figures, fully engrossed in their work, almost merge with the abstract shapes of the truck and the building. Thus, the labor is depicted as bearing the prospect of salvation.