|The painting is a superb composition, the sort of fearless pictorial hit-and-run at which Marsden Hartley excelled.|
There's much to ‘Abundance’
Marsden Hartley piles on the splendor in his Maine masterpiece
If I intone the title of this great painting by Marsden Hartley on my tongue as I look at it — “Abundance, abundance, abundance’’ — I find it does funny things to my head. Hartley painted it in 1939-40, toward the end of his life, and really did mean it as an expression of abundance. He had returned to Maine two years previously after a peripatetic life spent in France, Germany, Mexico, and various parts of the United States. He wanted in these final years to become “the painter of Maine.’’ He was struck — who could not be? — by the amplitude and beauty of the landscape.
During the summer of 1939, he stayed with his friends Claire Spencer and John Evans at Bagaduce Farm in West Brooksville, Maine. There, he saw and sketched felled timber waiting to be transported downstream. His studies were later built up into a series of paintings that were first shown in 1940 in the Hudson Walker Gallery in New York City.
I have never seen the others, but this one, which was acquired by the Currier Museum of Art in 1959, strikes me as a masterpiece. There’s something undeniably splendid about these huge towers of timber. Canted at jazzy angles and outlined in black so that they feel locked in place like a puzzle, they push up flat against the surface of the picture. If one log were moved, you feel, the whole thing could tumble out of the frame and into the gallery.
Off to the left are the gushing spurts of a waterfall. Crowded into the background is the dark plenitude of the forest; in the upper corner, a glimmer of moisture-laden sky. It’s a superb composition — the sort of fearless pictorial hit-and-run at which Hartley excelled.
Note the upside-down ax perched snugly in the lower foreground. Made mostly of wood, the tool feels like a poetic symbol, an enigmatic envoy between the abundance of nature and the utilitarian needs of man.
From Hartley’s early days in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, his modernist credentials were clearly established, his avant-garde status guaranteed. But like the Norwegian Edvard Munch, another loner who happened to paint superb pictures of timber and pine forests, he was a knotty figure who never slots neatly into art history’s dominant narratives.
His pictures benefit from this categorical slipperiness. They almost always feel like Hartleys before they feel like examples of this or that movement of modernism, this or that idea. What’s more, they never seem to have stable meanings.
That’s why, perhaps, when I look at “Abundance’’ with my 21st-century eyes jaded by decades of global deforestation, I see something different. I intone the word “abundance’’ and see a fiction, an idea — of endless natural resources — on the point of bursting out of its untenably cramped frame and smashing to the floor in front of me.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.