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Various forms including a circle, checkerboards, lines, a cross, 4, in the colors red, yellow, green blue, gray, white, black

Berlin Abstraction as a Portrait

Marsden Hartley’s Berlin Abstraction relies so much on us to decipher the movement set forth by line and form in the overlapping patterns of the composition. Where does your eye go first? Where does it rest after a few seconds? Or does it rest at all?

This vertical canvas is filled with geometric shapes that create patterns in red, blue, yellow, green, black, and white in this abstract painting. The paint is applied with visible brushstrokes, giving some areas a mottled look. Some of the patterns seem to revolve around a red circle near the top center. The circle has a black cross like a plus sign on a white field at its center, and a white band around its perimeter is outlined in black. A blue and white checkered band curves up over the red circle to our left while a banner-like form of alternating, wavy yellow and black lines cascade down to the right of the circle. Horizontal bands of red, white, and black extend across the canvas behind the circle. Below the circle, a blue panel with a curly, cursive red “E” is flanked to the left with a red and white checkerboard, then alternating, almost vertical lines of blue and white. The red number “4” appears on a yellow field at the bottom center of the work, and is flanked by rectangular forms and alternating bands of color to either side.

Marsden Hartley, Berlin Abstraction, 1914/1915, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.79.21

While the painting is an abstraction, it is also a portrait of a specific person, of a generation, and of a city. Painted sometime between October 1914 and November 1915, Berlin Abstraction is part of Hartley’s War Motifs series, initiated shortly after the death of his friend and probable lover, Karl von Freyburg, a German officer killed in the early days of World War I. Hartley would keep one of von Freyburg’s epaulets, or shoulder pieces, from his military uniform, with him the rest of his life.

To close out Pride Month, please join me in taking a close look at Berlin Abstraction to contemplate Hartley’s work, his relationship with von Freyburg, and his life in Berlin. “I have every sense of being at home among Germans, and I like the life color of Berlin—it has movement and energy and leans always a little over the edge of the future.”