Karl von Freyburg was born in 1889, scion of an aristocratic German line with illustrious royal connections which had supplied numerous officers to the Prussian, and subsequently imperial, armed forces. At just 18 Freyburg became a lieutenant, and although the outbreak of the First World War found him serving in the Reserve, he soon resumed active duties. His regiment, the 4th Foot Guards, marched into Belgium shortly after hostilities commenced and had reached France by the end of August. The following month Freyburg survived the Battle of the Marne, for which he was decorated with the Iron Cross. His glory was short-lived; exactly 100 years ago today he fell in the French town of Arras. He was just 24 years old.
But an unusual pre-war encounter ensures that the name Karl von Freyburg is better remembered in art history than military annals.
In 1912, Freyburg had gone to Paris to visit his cousin, sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck (who would later drop the umlaut and surface in American Modernist circles). Rönnebeck made occasional appearances at the salon of Gertrude Stein; among the other guests was Marsden Hartley. The American artist fell for the handsome German officer and moved to Berlin, which was not just an important centre for avant-garde art, but also – even then – one of the better European cities in which to be gay. The imperial capital delighted Hartley. In 1913, he wrote to Stein: “There is an interesting source of material here – numbers and shapes and colors that make one wonder and admire. It is essentially a mural, this German way of living – big lines and large masses . . . always a sense of pageantry of living.” This wonder and admiration is reflected in his works of the time, prismatic phantasmagorias of colour and spectacle (which were exhibited earlier this year in Berlin, and are currently to be seen in Los Angeles). Even the declaration of war did little to diminish his enchantment.
Hartley was, however, devastated by Freyburg’s death. The works he produced shortly after were variations on his pre-war themes, but along with the regimental plumes there were now numbers and letters. The contemporary casual observer might have assumed they were the kind of visual quotation seen in Cubist works around the same time – eye-catching, but essentially meaningless. But they were of deep significance to Hartley. The initials on display in at least two canvases (“K.v.F.”) need no explanation, but other coded references include the Iron Cross as well as the number of Freyburg’s regiment and the age at which he died (4 and 24 respectively). Even the black and white checks, which appear to be no more than a decorative device, refer to Freyburg’s favourite game, chess. One of these pieces bore the prosaic title of Painting No. 47, while another – Portrait of a German Officer – moved closer to the source of inspiration.
Exactly 75 years after Freyburg’s death – and thus twenty-five years ago today – these codes would reappear in the work of American Pop artist Robert Indiana, who saw parallels with the motifs he had been working on since the late 1950s, most famously in his mid-Sixties “LOVE” paintings. “I, first of all, was simply struck by the fact that he used numbers and letters just as I did. And particularly the numbers…I could see well there was definitely a connection between us.” Indiana also discovered that a storage space he used in Maine once served as one of Hartley’s studios.
His initial response to Hartley’s work, KvF I (Hartley Elegy), records the dates of both creation and inspiration. Flattened, stylised and schematised, it functions as a peppy cover version of Portrait of a German Officer, but makes explicit the previously concealed references to Hartley’s lover.
Over the next five years, Indiana continued working with these themes in a total of 18 paintings (with further screenprint variations in the early 1990s). “Some of mine are designed directly from his paintings, others I have recomposed,” notes the artist. “But then, as my own series progresses, the Hartley’s become less Hartley, and more Indiana.” These include references to events and men in the later artist’s own life. The colour scheme changes repeatedly, often picking out different elements of the original in a play of theme and variation. At some points the palette is reduced to a modern grisaille, while two in the series reflect the (current) German flag. The shape of the canvas also transforms, moving from the conventional rectangle to diamond shapes to discs. The penultimate example (XVII) comes full circle (and is, in fact, a circle), being most akin to the first in the series. Finally, number 18 embarks on yet another tangent, a highly stylised arrangement rendered in the colours of the (earlier) German flag. Nonetheless, you can still make out the plumes that Karl von Freyburg wore as he marched off to war.