While living as an expatriate in Berlin between 1913 and 1915, Hartley began to produce abstract modernist paintings. These groundbreaking works included a group of Native American–themed compositions that he called his Amerika series; Arrangement—Hieroglyphics (Painting No. 2) is one of...
While living as an expatriate in Berlin between 1913 and 1915, Hartley began to produce abstract modernist paintings. These groundbreaking works included a group of Native American–themed compositions that he called his Amerika series; Arrangement—Hieroglyphics (Painting No. 2) is one of this group. Hartley’s interest in Native American subject matter may have been spurred by his exposure in Germany to the artist and writer Wassily Kandinsky, whose ideas about spirituality and the importance to abstract art of naive, folk, and so-called primitive forms were profoundly important to Hartley’s artistic development. Many of the Amerika canvasses show recognizable Native American motifs, including figures in headdresses, teepees, and canoes, painted in a flat, geometric modernist style. These symbols signaled to viewers Hartley’s status as an American and also appealed to a longstanding German enthusiasm for Native American and frontier life. The symbols in Arrangement—Hieroglyphics, however, are less immediately decipherable than they are in his other Amerika works. The central triangular shape resembles a teepee, but the large concentric white and yellow circles in the lower portion of the composition look like a shooting target, a form unrelated to Native art. The other pictographic forms also have little or no connection to authentic Native American symbols, and the keyhole represented at lower left is an emphatically non-Native object. In fact, though Hartley frequented Berlin’s ethnological museum, the Museum für Völkerkunde (now the Ethnologisches Museum), during this period, he was by no means an expert on Native cultures and likely drew many of these forms from his imagination. Arrangement—Hieroglyphics was almost certainly executed before the outbreak of World War I in the fall of 1914. It is filled with bright and vivid colors that reflect Hartley’s strong, even optimistic prewar vision. Hartley’s style changed dramatically after the beginning of the war and the death soon thereafter of the man with whom Hartley was in love, German cavalry officer Karl von Freyburg. The later 1914 works incorporate large amounts of black paint, sometimes layered and scumbled over red, in an apparent reference to Hartley’s deep mourning and sadness. This work is in unusually good condition, retaining both its original surface and its original frame, which Hartley painted as an integral part of its composition. While many of Hartley’s canvasses from this period were inappropriately varnished sometime after they left the artist’s care, Arrangement—Hieroglyphics still has the dry, matte quality Hartley intended. Heather Hole
Reverse: Painting No 2/by Marsden Hartley
1914, the artist. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), New York; 1946, by descent to his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), New York and New Mexico. By 1953, Downtown Gallery, New York; 1953, sold by the Downtown Gallery to the William H. Lane Foundation; 1990, gift of the William H. Lane Foundation to the MFA. (Accession Date: September 18, 1990)
Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation
Marsden Hartley materials are reproduced with the permission of the Yale University Committee on Literary Property