Archive for May 25th, 2008

"Bach for Breakfast"

Bach Preludes et Fugues

B. is for Bach—
and all his noble sons,
who wrote square music for nave
and for loft,
for arch and for aisle,
for all the lost, forsaken things
no other sound will save—

Marsden Hartley
right: Musical Theme No. 2
(Bach Preludes et Fugues)
, 1912

from “Bach for Breakfast” (1923), The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley, ed. Gail R. Scott. (Black Sparrow Press, 1987).

Marsden Hartley is a name easily lost among the shuffle of American modernists. He belonged to the same illustrious circle as Georgia O’Keefe and Charles Demuth, but compromised his celebrity by unveiling a series of some fifty paintings whose seeming subject was the German military. On the eve of the Great War, the predilections of the “War Motif Series” and its homoerotic overtones were unsurprising cause for suspicion.

The most enterprising painter to emerge from Stieglitz’ stable at Gallery “291,” Hartley traveled to Paris in 1912 to keep abreast of the latest developments in modern painting. Music seemed to be on everyone’s mind. Picasso, for example, was incorporating the musical motifs of his native Spain into his cubist paintings and was soon to cultivate a friendship with Stravinsky. Kandinsky, whom Hartley followed to Berlin, likened the spiritual swirls of color on his musically-named canvases to Schoenberg’s treatment of line and motive.

Synthesizing the spiritual palette of Kandinsky with the intellectual prism of Picasso, Hartley developed a system of “cosmic cubism” with Bach as its presiding god. For Hartley, Bach was not just the father of music but the father of all abstract art, of “form in form.” The painting above is one of four which Hartley dedicated to the composer; the poem meditates on the divine geometry and consolation of Bach’s music to the gay expatriate, perhaps one of the many “lost forsaken things / no other sound will save.”

May 25th, 2008


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