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A new film examines Marsden Hartley’s life
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  October 29, 2008

art_Hartley1_INSIDE.jpg
SIMPLE JOY: “Church at Head Tide, Maine,”
by Marsden Hartley, oil on panel, 28 by 22
inches, 1938.
Everyone has their own Marsden Hartley. That happens with great painters, and Hartley was one of the greatest of 20th-century American artists. He is also a very difficult painter who needs repeated attention to be grasped at all well.

Michael Maglaras has made a film, Visible Silence: Marsden Hartley, Painter and Poet, giving us his view of this complex and important artist. Maglaras has paid a lot of attention to Hartley, having previously made a dramatic film built around Hartley’s prose poem Cleophas and His Own. It recounts the story of a Canadian fishing family he had lived with who lost their two sons and a nephew at sea, all at once. Hartley made some of his most memorable paintings about this family and their loss.

Making a film about paintings is at best a problematic enterprise. It’s in the nature of paintings in general, and Hartley’s paintings in particular, to demand that the viewer come to the painting itself, rather than a reproduction, to really complete the artistic process. Hartley’s painterly execution produces an aura that hovers around his paintings, giving them their remarkable resonance. Much of this is lost on film or any reproduction.

Paintings are also by their nature static, so they live in tension with the time-bound demands of cinematic drama. Maglaras addresses this problem with close-ups and pans, bringing our attention to those parts of the picture that fit his dramatic intent the best. Sometimes this is effective, as when he brings our attention to the symbolic solidity of the clouds above Katahdin. It can also be a little unnerving, as when he makes the arrows stuck in the eyes in the odd “Sustained Comedy” seem to be rays emanating from them.

Maglaras follows the chronology of Hartley’s life from his difficult childhood in Lewiston to his introduction to the artistic circle around Alfred Stieglitz in New York, where he first encountered Cézanne’s work. From there he follows Hartley’s path into the Gertrude Stein group of the Paris avant-garde and on to Germany where his love for a doomed German officer and for the pageantry of the Kaiser’s German army led to his first really signature works. One of the most famous is his “Portrait of a German Officer,” with its stacks of medals and uniform decorations, and containing the age and initials of his dead friend.

Visible Silence: Marsden Hartley, Painter and Poet | written, directed, and narrated by Michael Maglaras | produced by 217 Films | November 7 at 7 pm | at the Abromson Community Center, University of Southern Maine, 88 Bedford St, Portland | Free | 207.838.0816

Maglaras discusses Hartley’s love for symbols, a predilection that set him on a different path from the main stream of modernism. He also discusses his poverty, and the fact that he stuck to his work in the face of sometimes desperate privation. Hartley’s passion for things German did very little for his popularity as an artist once World War I got started, nor did his interest in the trappings of the Nazi regime. It was not a good time to be a Germanophile or, for that matter, a homosexual.

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Related: Half-century, Expanded within, More than words, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Painting, Visual Arts, Gertrude Stein,  More more >
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