Hartley goes home

MARSDEN Hartley (1877-1943) was never more than knee-deep into modernism. It wasn't that he didn't try, especially as a young man, or that some of his early pieces weren't successful in a generally abstract way. Neither was it a matter of ignorance or lack of sophistication. It's just that, try as he might to fashion a modernist style entirely his own, it always ended up looking at least a little bit like someone else's. At times, what he produced resembled some of C'ezanne's landscapes and still lifes; at other times, the canvases of Matisse, Kandinsky, the Cubists, or some of the German Expressionists. Most of his pictures were well painted, and almost all had an expressive or decorative impact that was quite impressive. But these early paintings were never really special enough to stamp their creator as a fully committed modernist. For one thing, they were a bit too ornamental. For another, they had the look of work by someone ``shopping around'' for a style to appropriate and then to modify slightly to accommodate his own formal purposes.

But that should come as no surprise. Hartley was only doing what most younger artists do while searching for what they really want to ``say'' and for the manner in which they can best say it. His search took him to various parts of the United States, to Europe -- which in some ways became his second home after World War I -- and to Mexico, Bermuda, and Nova Scotia. In the 1920s, C'ezanne's influence began to bear serious fruit in a series of landscapes of New Mexico and Mont Ste.-Victoire in France which, despite their debt to the French painter's formalist vision, exist primarily as strong personal pictorial statements.

By the early 1930s, Hartley's mature style was well on its way to full realization, and by 1936, in such canvases as ``The Old Bars, Dogtown,'' and ``The Last Stone Walls, Dogtown,'' the blunt, deeply expressive approach to painting for which he would soon be famous was solidly in place.

Only one more thing needed to be done before the Marsden Hartley whom later generations would know best could come into focus, and this was to return to his home state of Maine. This was accomplished in 1937. It meant not only that he had gone back to his roots but also that he had finally stripped his art of everything that was not essential for its creation.

By returning, he signaled that he finally knew who he was as a painter, and how to shape and communicate what he felt impelled to say. The man who had worn a succession of brightly colored modernist masks during the long years of his creative evolution had pulled the last one off, and had come home to the dark, wet woods of Maine -- to a world of conflict and survival only occasionally alleviated by glimpses of peaceful lakes, floral bouquets, and the soft bodies of lovingly painted birds.

The Maine that Hartley loved and painted was brooding and intense, a place where lobstermen looked every bit as chunky and uncompromising as the logs and rocks on which they sat, where lighthouses were in constant danger of being smashed by towering waves, and where solitary mountains dominated miles of solid black forests and jagged sections of coastline.

He painted all this as directly as one chops down trees or rows a boat, and in colors that remained aggressively true to their natural origins. Thus, the sky and the ocean were always very blue -- except occasionally when they contained touches of gray or green; the land was brown, black, or green; waves were inevitably white; and all living things were defined by the colors appropriate to them. What he did change was the intensity and totality of the color by which an object or a setting was normally identified. If a rock was perceived as brown, brown was what it almost exclusively became. And the same was true of forests, human faces, clouds, flowers, sailing ships, and whatever else he decided to paint. What was blue was blue, and what was red was red. It was as simple as that.

It was also very effective -- especially as he loved to make the sea crash against rocky shorelines, or to cause huge boulders to thrust themselves into the sky. In his pictures, the dramas of nature were heightened by the pictorial dramas of warm colors against cool, darks against lights, and verticals against horizontals.

When it worked, and it did so with increasing frequency toward the end of his life, the result was a stark image that appeared almost brutally primitive in its rough grandeur. Some of his contemporaries, in fact, never caught onto the significance of what Hartley was eventually able to do, and others felt he had betrayed his earlier modernist fervor by painting such ``obvious'' and clumsy-looking landscapes, still lifes, and figure studies. But to those who understood what he had been battling so desperately to achieve all those long years before he reached full creative maturity, his final paintings were and will always remain among the glories of mid-20th-century American art.

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