Marsden Hartley, New Mexico Recollection #13, oil on canvas, c. 1923
Last week, a suggestion by Amon Carter Museum blogger Nora Puckett — that perhaps Marsden Hartley’s painting, New Mexico Recollection #13, contains a hidden memorial to a man Hartley loved — sparked debate in the comments section about homophobia and pictorial symbolism.
For what it’s worth, Hartley was closeted, at least in his early years. One reason his feelings for the young Prussian officer Karl von Freyburg, who died early in World War I, were so intense (though possibly unconsummated) may have been that Hartley, who wandered most of his life searching for a sense of place and home, had discovered the vibrant gay community in Berlin, 1914-1915. This is also where he produced some of his most advanced abstract and German Expressionist paintings, exhibiting them with the Blaue Reiter modernists, including Klee and Kandinsky. So it was an intense period in his life, both artistically and personally, a period cut short by the lack of funds that forced him to return to the U.S.
Marsden Hartley. Portrait of a German Officer, oil on canvas, 1914
Nora Puckett’s suggestion that the letter “K” on the lower left refers to Karl has a strong basis in that Hartley used the same approach in his less oblique memorial to von Freyburg: Portrait of a German Officer, from 1914 — part of his “War Motif” series. What is probably Hartley’s most celebrated painting is not a glorification of German militarism, as might be first surmised, but an intense yet private elegy for Von Freyburg, whose initials appear on the lower left, as does the young man’s age at his death (24) on the lower right and the number 4, the number of his cavalry regiment. The capital E in the middle of the painting has been taken to refer to Hartley himself, whose first name was Edmund. In effect, Edmund is surrounded by Karl, has wrapped himself in his memory.
The Amon Carter’s exhibition, Marsden Hartley and the West: The Search for an American Modernism, runs through Aug. 24. For a detailed study of the entire topic, see Jonathan Weinberg’s Speaking of Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley and the First American Avant-Garde.