“…I have never been near the real thing before, for a fisherman is more of a ‘thing’ then a shut-in farmer…”-Marsden Hartley in a 1935 letter from Nova Scotia
“I wasn’t unmindful of the look in your face that day that comes over one in the moments of crucifixion. Only the other day I said to the dear….girls here in the house- and it seemed as if I must shriek it- ‘I want to get down off the cross.’ I make no…comparisons in using the symbol of the cross- I only felt I wanted to get down from something, to have the steel points removed from my flesh.” -Marsden Hartley in an undated letter.
“It’s wild and tense(?) up here- noble in spirit and devastating human endurance from the stories of the sea they tell me so simply as anyone would tell of a bus ride. They recount the dangers and the savagery of the sea and there are no ‘dude’ fisherman up this way- they are the real thing…”- Marsden Hartley in a 1935 letter from Nova Scotia
In my last post I discussed in part the masochistic act of Jesus Christ in his crucifixion as being at its core (beyond the religion that emerged from this act) as a negation of traditional masculinity. I further suggested that an image of the crucifixion in its display of a nearly nude and muscular male body is a site of homoerotic desire seen through a dynamic of suffering, sacrifice and humiliation.
This underlying homoeroticism is made starkly and passionately visible in Marsden Hartley’s late work, Christ Held by Half-Naked Men. In this painting, the artist has created a homoerotic Pièta, the moment after crucifixion when the dead body of Christ is taken down from the instrument of his death and in traditional works of this subject held by his mother, The Virgin Mary. In the Hartley image, the Virgin is absent as is all female presence; she is replaced by a muscular shirtless fisherman in blue jeans and a traditional Nova Scotia fisherman’s hat who tenderly cradles on his lap the lifeless Christ, a fact emphasized by the greenish, whitish, bluish skin of the dead, decaying body which vividly contrasts with the smooth, pink and robust skin of the fisherman.
Behind the central pair stands 7 other similarly attired, but also shirtless buff men with bright pink smooth skin. These figures become a new type of angels mourning the dead Christ. Yet, these men are not wholly pious; they adopt the stance of one cruising at a bar- one hand at the waistband, the other emphasizing the groin. They are posing and displaying their body for the spectator and like Christ’s solace, they proudly display their large almost grotesque pectoral muscles with giant nipples and prominent belly buttons like wide staring eyes that fixate the viewer and implicate him in the homoerotic scene. Indeed, there real eyes seem closed in pray?
The belly buttons and nipples in their representation also mimic the nail holes in Christ’s hands and feet, the wounds of the crucifixion as if the fisherman all received symbolic stigmata for their love of Christ. The painting conflates and contrasts his suffering with sexual spectacle and desire- the desire for built Nova Scotia fisherman.
In traditional Christian iconography the image of Christ held by the Virgin Mary is symbolic of Christ as a sacrifice, as the lamb, as the host of the mass, as the bread of the Last Supper placed on the altar of the Church personified and embodied by his mother Mary. It is decidedly a heterosexual union. In Hartley’s painting the body of Christ is instead displayed and sacrificed on the altar of conventional masculinity signified by the shirtless fisherman- a masculine archetype that the artist favored both in his art and his life. In a 1933 letter from Germany, Hartley writes, “…I am always in a state of little boy admiration of the strong men type for what he is able to do with his body.” The smaller stature of Jesus in Hartley’s painting suggests a child despite his beard and pecs in relation to the larger men who surround him. Indeed, in a traditional Pièta, Christ is a child held by his mother The Virgin Mary.
I have always found this painting incredibly moving; it is poignant, erotic and tender in its conflation of (homo)desire, death and religion underlined by the rawness of its form- the visceral brushstroke and the striking contrast of blue and pink. It is not surprising that this work was made at the end of Hartley’s life. He died in 1943. Knowing this fact has always brought tears to my eyes when I look at this image. It is underlined by the numerous letters of Hartley’s which I read while researching my master’s thesis in art history. In his own words, I encountered a creative and lonely man who on some level remained an outsider his entire life (a self much like me). He was a restless, searching soul who perhaps never found peace and that truth is with me when I look at any of his paintings and not just this one.
In the end, Christ Held by Half-Naked Men is really a self-portrait. Hartley is himself the Christ in this work, finally able to get down off the cross of life, of loneliness, of homophobia, and be lovingly yet full of desire held by another man and hopefully find a degree of solace, the steel points finally removed from his flesh.