In 1914, Marsden Hartley wanted to make a memorial portrait of German Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, who had been killed in the early days of World War I. Hartley would have quickly realized the obvious problems with paying pictorial tribute to von Freyburg, his likely lover: Von Freyburg had been German and thus he was (or was about to be) an enemy soldier. He was also, well, a man and so a memorial portrait would have to be indirect. Hartley found a way and fed his grief into a series of paintings now known as the German Officer Paintings, canvases that were among the earliest American abstractions.
One of them, Painting No. 47, Berlin (1914-15, at right) is prominently featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Curated by Jonathan Katz of the University of Buffalo and the NPG’s David C. Ward, the exhibition is important and thrilling, one of the best shows of the year.
“Hide/Seek” turns seeing into noticing by highlighting 120 years of hints, techniques and tropes that American artists have used to refer to otherhood. For example, Hartley used code-as-abstraction: von Freyburg isn’t in Hartley’s portrait, but his helmet, his regimental flag, insignia and so on are, all abstracted down to mere semiotics.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly gay or lesbian about coded references in art. Dutch genre painters were notorious for their use of coded, often punny symbols. Portrait painters have long used semiotics to refer to their sitters’ professions or interests. It isn’t new or surprising that painters use and update other painters’ techniques.
Where “Hide/Seek” makes it mark is in refuting a position first put forth by conservatives in the 1980s. In a superb catalogue essay, Katz notes that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) helped inaugurate the culture wars by equating homosexual with art with AIDS. Helms, a little-known congressman named Larry Craig and other conservatives swiftly moved to establish ‘gay’ and ‘artist’ as something apart from American. They equated their formula with fear, death and un-Americanness and segregated gays and artists into a rhetorical Manzanar.
With “Hide/Seek,” Katz and Ward wield research and scholarship to dismantle that bombast and leave fact-based history in its place. Katz and Ward’s exhibition effectively argues that queerness — or “difference” to use their word — has been a part of American art history almost since our art matured into something distinctly American. “Hide/Seek” demonstrates that to segregate ‘gay’ from ‘American’ is to willfully obscure a thorough understanding of our nation and its art.
Seemingly paradoxically, “Hide/Seek” reveals that the more intensely scholars burrow into specific micro-art histories, the more we learn about our broader American historical and art historical narrative. There are few — if any — techniques and references that are exclusive to gay artists or that gay artists have trafficked in to the exclusion of all others. Gay artists have been informed by straight artists, and vice versa. In other words, this exhibition tells an American story, and in so doing smartly underscores the social and cultural fluidity of which Americans are so proud.
The Hartley above is a good example. Despite the exhibition catalogue’s description of Hartley’s German Officer Paintings as being “wholly original,” they’re not. They were probably informed by a straight guy, in particular by a painting from a West Chester, Pa.-based artist named George Cope.
In 1887, Republican war veteran and West Chester businessman Levi Gheen McCauley commissioned a painting from Cope. McCauley had served the Union with distinction in the Civil War and for reasons that aren’t clear, he wanted to share his personal history with his community. (Active in Republican politics for most of his life and the chairman of the county Republican party, McCauley may have been thinking about running for public office.)
Cope made a ‘portrait’ of McCauley based on his war regalia. Cope’s audience, politically-engaged Pennsylvanians, would have understood what the two medals at the top of the portrait said about the major’s distinguished war service, that he had served with the 7th Pennsylvania regiment, that the two swords indicated a certain breadth of experience — and responsibility. The painting also summoned memories of the subject’s honor and heroism in a tasteful, restrained way. A more traditional portrait of of McCauley, who lost his right arm in a battle at Charles City, Va., might have evoked sympathy rather than respect and might have recalled viewers’ unpleasant war memories. Cope’s painting is apparently one of the earliest American portraits to rely entirely on semiotics for its presentation of its subject. (It is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and is not in the show or catalogue.)
Given the similarities between Hartley’s first German Officer Painting and Cope’s portrait, right down to the swords, tassels and regiment numbers, it’s likely that Hartley saw the Cope somewhere. Cope’s painting isn’t necessarily gay or heterosexual. Hartley’s isn’t either, at least not exactly. Part of what separates Hartley’s painting from Cope’s is that societal strictures forced Hartley into an abstraction, a revelation that tells us a lot about America. Good art survey exhibitions aren’t just about art history, they can be about how art history informs broader histories. This is a very good art exhibition.
Related: The sad cases of two high school yearbook pictures demonstrate how immediately relevant this exhibition is. Part two of my review: The furtive gaze. Part three of my review: Introducing confrontation.
To be continued…