THE BLOG
11/07/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Men and War: Art Review

There's a stunning exhibition of paintings by the early 20th century American artist Marsden Hartley at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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The fact that this substantial body of work spans only two years, from 1913 to 1915, is staggering in itself. That they were made in Germany just before and at the start of World War I gives them a special historical significance. That many of them were made in bereavement, as a memorial tribute to the gay artist's gay lover, killed during the first year of action, gives them a particular emotional poignancy and social significance. That they are amazing paintings, as rich in symbolic value as in color, form and texture, makes this an absolute must-see exhibition.

What struck me most was the courage and defiance of these paintings. Though set against a sheer, funereal black ground, the color of mourning, their painterly exuberance constitutes a not-so-covert thumb-in-the-eye not only to disparaging social attitudes about gay men and homosexuality, but also to the patriotic triumphalism that led so many European countries blindly into a disastrous and particularly pointless war. The inclusion of a contemporaneous film of public military events, with troops strutting proudly on parade, reminds us of the absurdly reactionary, puffed-up image of chivalrous masculine valor that compares tragically to what we know of the ignominious slaughter in the trenches of that shameful "war to end all wars." Stand back a ways from "Abstraction (Military Symbols)"...

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... and you'll perhaps see, as I did, the ironic image of a knight on horseback, armed with lance and sword, surging forward towards the viewer. But it's no diminishment of the courage of the millions of men whose lives were needlessly sacrificed to say that these were no knights in shining armor; they were simple canon fodder. Add in the almost excessive exuberance of color and the emotional intensity in so many of these paintings, and the viewer comes away overwhelmed by the sheer waste and sadness of it all.

So with all their evocation of military decorations and other references to Germany military power, Hartley's paintings seem to me to carry a satirical subtext: the outward display of masculinity, the pomp and circumstance, is barely disguised vanity. The howl of pain and outrage is as powerful, but also as restrained and subversive as it is in the poems of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, and others who experienced the brutal reality of that war. It is of special interest, I think, that this two-year body of work also incorporates the formal patterning and symbology of American Indian artifacts...

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... evoking, to my mind, the aggressive wars conducted by the American military in the course of the previous century, and the enforced cultural assimilation that followed.

Both these wars, let's face it, were the work of men, politicians and generals, and the cavalrymen and foot soldiers enlisted in their cause. The Hartley show leads into a neighboring gallery, where we find the contemporary sculptor, Sam Durant's proposal for a poignant, if austere national memorial to those who died in the wars against the American Indians...

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Proposed for installation in the national Mall in the nation's capital, it consists of two long rows of bland, monochrome gray reproductions of otherwise widely scattered 19th century monuments to the dead. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the vast majority of them memorialize the white soldiers who died. The handful of smaller monuments for the Native Americans killed in these actions is clustered separately, between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, marking the melancholy distance between victims and aggressors, and the historical prominence of the latter. Dominance, dominion, colonization, these are the deplorable traditions of power established by Western civilization.

For an antidote, be sure to visit the galleries at the opposite end of the same floor of the Broad building at LAMCA. Here you'll find a solo exhibition devoted to the work of the Chicago-based African American artist Archibald Motley, another early 20th century painter, and one inspired in part by by the Harlem Renaissance to celebrate all aspects of black culture. Though they, too, have a satirical edge, his paintings are for the most part wild and joyful. He is fascinated by the diversity of shades of black...

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... as well as by the teeming social strata within the black community: his life-affirming pictures feature frenetic jazz musicians and dancers...

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... card sharps and criminals...

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... as well as high society African Americans, ecstatic church worshippers, and the underclass of working stiffs and bums.

Motley has fared better than a number of talented African American artists of his generation, many of whom have been marginalized by the great, sweeping tide of (Anglo-American!) mainstream art. It's good to see his work justly celebrated in an exhibition such as this.