Sadakichi Hartmann's Moving Pictures

 

Anna Shechtman

 

A grotesque etched in flesh by the drunken Goya of Heaven. A grinning obscene gargoyle on the Temple of American Letters. Superman-bum. Half God, half Hooligan; all artist. Anarch, sadist, satyr. A fusion of Jap and German, the ghastly experiment of an Occidental on the person of an Oriental. Sublime, ridiculous, impossible. A genius of the ateliers, picture studios, ginmills, and East Side lobscouse restaurants. A dancing dervish, with graceful, Gargantuan feet and a mouth like the Cloaca Maxima. A painter out of Hokusai, Manet, Whistler. Result: fantastic realism. A colossal ironist, a suave pessimist, a Dionysiac wobbly.                                                     

–Benjamin De Casseres (1929)

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So critic Benjamin De Casseres described Sadakichi Hartmann. The court magician collected epithets more readily than paychecks throughout his career as a poet, art critic, and dramatist. He was, “King of the Bohemians” (per Greenwich Village lore), “the man with a Hokusai profile and broad Teutonic culture” (per J. G. Huneker), and “a living freak presumably sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly” (per John Barrymore). Gertrude Stein said he was “singular, never plural.” And Ezra Pound conceded, “If one had not been oneself, it wd. have been worthwhile being Sadakichi.” He was, in his own terms, “photographed by everyone”—including Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, and Francis Bruguiere—and he maintained lasting if tumultuous friendships with Walt Whitman, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ezra Pound, Alfred Stieglitz, Rudolph Schindler, W.C. Fields, and John Barrymore.

The mythology of Hartmann—reinforced by his own penchant for self-aggrandizement—is hard to disentangle from the content of his writing, much of which has been eclipsed by his fantastical biography. The son of a wealthy German trader and Japanese mother, Hartmann was born in Nagasaki, raised in Hamburg, and immigrated to Philadelphia at age fourteen to live with an uncle.

Hartmann began writing art criticism in the late 1880s, bolstered by encouragement from his adolescent mentor, Walt Whitman, for whom he had translated German correspondence and with whom he discussed European Symbolism, Japanese poetry, and American art. Between 1893 and 1897, he founded two avant-garde art magazines, Art Critic and Art News, both of which failed for lack of funding. While many American artists and writers were fleeing to Paris to join the Symbolists, Hartmann championed Symbolism on American soil: he wrote plays with elaborate lighting effects, perfume concerts, and the first English-language haikus.

But Hartmann is most remembered as a photo critic and as a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s New York City coterie. Between 1898 and 1919, he wrote 58 essays for Stieglitz’s elite publications Camera Notes and Camera Work, sometimes writing under the pseudonym Sidney Allen. It was in these essays that Hartmann established himself as an expert on European and American painting, sculpture, and literary media.  Hartmann wrote for Stieglitz’s publications with equal parts ironic distance and staunch idealism. In the private galleries and exclusive art clubs of Old New York, he gained a reputation as a first-class photo critic with a first-class ego. E.W. Simmons said of Hartmann: “[He] may be capricious and malicious and rather careless at times, but he is, after all, the only art critic we have who knows a good picture when he sees it, and who is not afraid of expressing his opinions.” In a profile in the photography journal The Photo-Beacon, writer Alexander S. Horr claimed that although “[Hartmann] was connected with more than a dozen photographic papers, here and abroad, it can really be said that it was he who made the Stieglitz and Käsebiers, Whites and Eugenes popular.”

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While these American photographers have secured a place in the art historical canon, Hartmann remains on the margins. Virtually no attention has been paid to Hartmann’s writing on the youngest medium to emerge within his lifetime: the cinema. “The Esthetic Significance of the Motion Picture,” published in Camera Work in April of 1912 was Hartmann’s first effort to write about nascent cinema. Like other early theorists of film’s relationship to still visual art (most famously Roger Fry in 1909 and Vachel Lindsay in 1915), Hartmann was forging uncharted territory. 

Grappling with the cinema’s potential for artistry and its effect on more established media forms, Hartmann did not shy away from the mainstream popularity of his subject. Despite Camera Work’s elite audience of art critics and practitioners, he began his essay with a populist appeal:

No other form of popular amusement today enjoys as steady and general a patronage as the moving picture shows receive …It contains some element that appeals to the masses, and whenever I see one of these auditoriums packed to standing room only, I become conscious that I am in the presence of something that touches the pulsebeat of time.

For art to have widespread appeal it must “possess something of a ‘buckeye element… it must offer some tangible, ordinary interest that the average mind can seize in order to be truly popular.” While modern painting lacks this “buckeye” quality, Hartmann writes, cinema has it “to an almost alarming degree, for it contains all the pictorialism the average person wants, plus motion.” For Hartmann, the motion of motion pictures is inherently tangible: affronting the viewer with something that he can seize upon haptically, no matter how aesthetically aloof he is. Conceding to the “crude” taste of contemporary film viewers, Hartmann proceeds to defend cinema against the kneejerk snobbism and “caste prejudice” of his Camera Work audience. He writes:

Readers may ask whether I take these pictures seriously and whether I see any trace of art in them. Yes, honestly, I do. I know that most cultivated people feel ashamed of acknowledging that they occasionally attend moving picture shows. This is due to caste prejudice, as the largest percentage of the attendance belongs to the illiterate class (at least as far as art esthetics are concerned). To my mind there is not the slightest doubt that these performances show much that is vivid, instructive, and picturesque, and also occasionally a fleeting vision of something that is truly artistic.

 Imagining a cinema art with the competence of pictorial photography, he writes:

More artistic it will become solely by more artistic handling, and there is no reason why some genius like Henry Irving, Gordon Craig, or Steichen should not invade the realm of motion picture making and more fully reveal its esthetic possibilities. As long as dramatic action, storytelling or records of events will constitute the principle aim, it will remain imitative of the stage. Only when poetic and pictorial expression become the main object will it develop in esthetic lines.

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In “The Esthetic Significance of the Motion Picture,” Hartmann acknowledges the multimedia and cooperative nature of filmmaking. Although pictorial expression is the primary aim of his imagined art cinema, he confesses that “some literary theme will always be necessary to support the action.” In a metaphor teeming with gesamtkunstwerk energy, he adds, “but it could be the theme of a painter that is stage-managed by a poet or vice versa.” And what would this art cinema look like? Hartmann answers, painting a moving image in prose:

Imagine Böcklin’s Villa at the Sea as a motion picture:—Old Roman architecture, with waving pinions, and the approach of a coming storm. The waves would caress the shore, the leaves would be carried away by the wind, and into this scene of melancholy and solitude would enter a draped figure who in a few superb gestures would express the essence of grief.

With these lines, Arnold Böcklin’s “Villa at the Sea” becomes the first frame of a moving pictorialist masterpiece.

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Eight years earlier, writing in Camera Work about the “technique of mystery and blurred effects” in literature, painting, and photography, Hartmann lauded the paintings of Böcklin and his fellow symbolist Gustav Moreau for their ability to “create a legendary world of [their] own,” to “give us … a faint suggestion of something wholly unknown, of something beyond ordinary comprehension.” It was this allusiveness that pictorialists aimed to bring to photography. Importing the composition and chiaroscuro effects of symbolist and impressionist painting into the photographer’s canon, Hartmann celebrated photographs with all the “suggestiveness” of painting, achieved through the use of soft-focus lenses, filters, and sometimes manipulation of the photographic negative. By selecting Böcklin as the example for his imagined motion picture, Hartmann envisions a cinema of suggestion (as opposed to the cinema of attractions of his time)—a cinema in which narrative could be revealed through its own concealment, and which “at rare intervals lashes our feeling into exquisite activity.”

Hartmann’s is a film formalism that finds cinema’s essence within a film frame as opposed to between frames (through montage). Hartmann envisions “short episodes in which all the laws of composition, color and chiaroscuro are obeyed, just as in painting, only with the difference that there would come to our vision like a series of paintings, one perfect picture after the other, linked together by action." If successful, this would be “an art equally as beautiful as the painting of today—while more intricate, and more in harmony with our present life philosophy!” Hartmann thus prescribed the tenets of pictorialism to the moving picture: not in an effort to retard the medium by making it look like a 19th century masterpiece, but to propel it forward into dialogue with the modernist aesthetics of art photography in 1912.

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Hartmann’s embrace of the Modern, humbled but not restrained by his reverence for the Old Masters, fuels his writing on both cinema and the plastic arts. His approach to film echoes his sentiments about the Flatiron building at the tip of Manhattan’s Madison Square: “’Surely, you do not mean to tell us that the eyesore at Twenty-third Street and Broadway has anything to do with art?’ some of my readers will incredulously ask.” Hartmann seemed to court the incredulity of his elitist peers. A polyglot, he spoke populist and pretentious tongues fluently, using one to skewer the other in a battle of wits (one sometimes wonders who ultimately won the battle, since Hartmann was fighting both sides). But Hartmann’s investment in the Modern—with cinema and architecture at its pinnacle—was more than cultural slumming at the expense of his readers’ arrogance. On the vanguard of the American avant-garde, he was motivated as much by cynicism as idealism: “There is an infinitude of art and beauty in all this mad, useless materiality, which, if artists, blinded by the achievement of former ages cannot see it, will at least give rise to a new style … rising boldly and nonchalantly from the ruins of the past.”

In 1915, under the penname Sidney Allen, Hartmann published an essay in the photography trade journal Wilson’s Photographic Magazine entitled “Chances of Moving-Picture Portraiture.” Heralding moving pictures as “the next great step in the advance of portrait photography.” In this text Hartmann appropriates the voice of a thrifty businessman speculating on a rising stock by advising young photographers to pick up motion picture cameras and establish itinerant “home movies” businesses. His concerns are pragmatic—Will natural light be necessary? Should cameramen rehearse with their subjects?—his message, consistent: cinema is the next frontier for the pictorial artist-pioneer.

Continuing to publish intermittently in photography magazines into the early twenties, Hartmann settled in Los Angeles in 1923, where he spent his days lecturing on Edgar Allen Poe and American art from the studio of his friend, architect Rudolf Schindler. At parties, Hartmann became rising Hollywood elite—he counted W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Decker, and John Barrymore. Hartmann’s role among Hollywood royalty was twofold: sage on side, jester on the other. A 1923 write-up in the film fan magazine Photo-Play calls him a “Eurasian mystic [among] filmdom’s intelligentsia … frequently give[n] to enlightening a group of assiduous devotees on life and customs of various times and peoples.”

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An anachronism, an exotic spectacle, a fetish among Hollywood’s in-crowd, Hartmann was asked in 1924 to take the role of court magician to the “three princes of Asia” in Douglas Fairbanks’ epic film production The Thief of Baghdad. He took the role and later wrote about it, with little kindness, in the London theater review Curtain. The 57-year-old self-proclaimed invalid penned a scathing critique of Fairbanks’ set and the working conditions of the Hollywood studio, which he deemed inhumane. “The Thief of Baghdad,” he concluded, “was supposed to be the last word as a spectacular Oriental play. It may be for those who know nothing about the Orient, but I can assure you that the Geographical Magazine contains more suggestion of Oriental splendour and fairy-like grace in its illustrations than the combined efforts of the art department could produce.”

Most of Hartmann’s 20 essays for Curtain teem with a similar disdain for the moronically low intellectual standards of Hollywood producers and fans. His prose shifts erratically between frivolous gossip—Chaplin is “The Most Lonesome Man in Hollywood,” to prescient cultural criticism—Jack Gilbert, or the “intellectual Valentino,” can only hold a “learned discourse on ‘Do Leading Men Make Good Lovers.” He laughs at his “Hollywood landlady,” who is certain she can be “the next Gloria Swanson, or at least a Mae Murray.” He makes monkeys of actors acting in front of cameras instead of live audiences—turning thespians into “automaton artists.”

Hartmann consistently heralds film’s artistic potential, blaming shallow commercialism for distorting its pictorial trajectory and potential, which he prophesized in 1912. His critique of Hollywood’s “mob psychology,” encouraged by profiteering producers, crystalizes in a parable of “the gagman and the cutter,” or the slapstick clown and the film editor. These two men “without culture and ideals,” Hartmann wrote, “impersonate the mob” eliminating from motion pictures whatever they “don’t understand.” Hartmann blames Hollywood’s producers for the failure of cinema. He writes:

Artistically speaking the motion picture is of spacing of dramatically excited figures and groups, of spectacular pageants and mass movements against space … If one were allowed to select those sequences of exposure in which the composition is the most artistic (painter-like), and from the story telling material those shots, in which the poise would be still a reflex of a mental attitude or a coherent emotional expression, the result would be undoubtedly a better show pictorially. Whether it would please the large public equally well is another matter.

In a 1938 unpublished manuscript entitled “The Motion Picture,” Hartmann included Eisenstein, along with D.W. Griffith, Carl Theodore Dreyer, “and a few others” among directors with “well-rounded artistic personalities” who “occasionally, in a shot here and there [reveal] a real moving picture." This manuscript, riddled with typos and lines of text that run right off the page, is the culminating work of a career cinephile. Hartmann called it “a footnote viz. essays in The Curtain,” but its contents amount to much more than paratext or afterthought. He wrote “The Motion Picture” in a shack he built on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, California, where he retreated in the late 1930s to escape FBI interrogation during World War II (despite having gained American citizenship in 1894, Hartmann was hounded by the justice department until his death in 1944).

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In the course of “The Motion Picture’s” typed manuscript pages, Hartmann finally answers the question with which his cinema studies began: his pitch to Stieglitz—“will ‘motion’ ever make painting a peculiarly limited art like sculpture?” Invoking Delacroix’s prophetic cry that “Painting is dead!” after he saw a daguerreotype in 1847, Hartmann claims that “the static, the one permanent view rendering, is going out of favor … it will become scarce, rare, obsolete.” He even extends Delacroix’s death sentence to photography, which, he claims, will “amount to little more than a triumph on an esthetic by-way” in the history of American art. The cinema, however, remains for Hartmann very much alive, it “come[s] nearest to the two conditions which are destined to be the main characteristics of all future art expression: being based on a principle of motion and dependent on a composite of efforts.”

Hartmann and the Pictorialists

Hartmann may have been the most illustrious proponent of pictorialism to turn his attention to cinema, but he was not alone. Before Hartmann’s Camera Work essay was published, the editors of Photo Era, a magazine catering to professional and amateur photographers, and Moving Picture World, the official organ for the film industry at the time, took to print to debate the merits of moving pictures. In 1908, Photo critic Carl H. Claudy wrote two editorials in Photo Era decrying the emergence of cinema, entitled “The Degradation of the Motion-Pictures” and “Degraded Cinematography.” In both essays, Claudy bemoans the “freaks, horrors, and outrages” shown on nickelodeon screens; he demeans the poor quality of projected images and makes claim to cinema’s damaging effects on the health and moral rectitude of civil society. Unlike Hartmann, Claudy repeatedly insists that motion pictures are essentially “theatrical,” implicitly disentangling his preferred medium (photography) from cinema, and aligning film with the aesthetics of the stage and vaudeville. In January 1909, Moving Picture World editor Thomas Bedding responded to Claudy, accusing him of “trying to give the moving-picture industry a black eye.

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While Hartmann could hardly agree that pictorial still photography had “reached the limits of its developments” in 1909, he shared Bedding’s galvanizing call to photographers to develop moving pictures in pictorialist terms. Evidently many photographers heeded this call, and not least among them was pictorial photographer Karl Struss, a member of the “Photo-Secession” in the early teens, who moved to Hollywood in 1919 to take publicity stills with his newly-patented Struss Pictorial Lens. Struss would become one of the most widely respected cinematographers of the Hollywood studio system. By the early 1920s, most cinematographers were using the Struss’s lens for their close-ups, emulating the aesthetics of still portraiture. And in 1927, he and Charles Rosher, co-founder of the American Society of Cinematographers, won the first Academy Award for Best Cinematography for their work on F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. There is little doubt that Struss had read Hartmann’s “On the Esthetic Significance of Motion Pictures,” as eight of the thirteen photographs accompanying Hartmann’s text in that issue of Camera Work were Struss’s own.

Hartmann in Film Studies

That Sadakichi Hartmann’s film criticism has remained dormant in film studies may be due to the spectacular eccentricity of Hartmann’s biography and bibliography. Spanning generations of American intellectualism, artistic genres, and the east and west coasts, Hartmann’s writing defies disciplinary bounds and historical periodization. The “superman-bum, Half God, half Hooligan; all artist” does not fit easily into pre-defined art historical, film or literary narratives. But Hartmann’s obscurity in film studies, in particular, may be symptomatic of a trend in the field to repress the pictures of motion pictures, seeking instead literary referents to both theorize and make moving pictures.

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Where Hartmann saw “stellenweise” moments of a suggestive pictorialism in Griffith’s films, less eccentric thinkers have focused on the director’s pioneering narrative system.  Sergei Eisenstein’s “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Today” (1944) discovered the antecedents of Griffith’s famed cross-cutting and parallel editing in the structure of the novels of Griffith’s favorite writer, Charles Dickens. For Eisenstein, the tenets of cinematic montage, honed by Griffith’s films, find their artistic analog in the multiple plotlines and juxtaposing imagery of Victorian fiction. Returning to Griffith’s canon almost fifty years later, Tom Gunning assumes a similarly literary orientation to Griffith’s early films in his D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film (1993). Appropriating the vocabulary of narratology from Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse, Gunning traces the changes in Griffith’s filmic narration—finding an increased number of cuts, an increased use of parallel editing and close-up shots—to demonstrate the codification of a “narrative system” in film that began under Griffith’s direction. Both of these texts have become seminal to film studies; similarly, both find the essence of Griffith’s cinema in literary metaphors: montage, editing and narration. Lest they be conceived of as cinematic “attractions,” pictorial images are drained of their aesthetic content (their “simply visual pleasure”) and imbued with literary import. In these terms, Griffith’s films are formally defined between frames, as opposed to within the frame—as Hartmann asked us to see them. Hartman championed the profilmic over the literary, looking for innovation in lighting, mis-en-scène, and composition rather than in plot and narrative.

In a similar vein, when Gunning reads the final scene of A Drunkard’s Reformation (1909)—in which a restored family huddles around a dramatically-lit hearth—he collapses the shot’s “pictorially striking profile and backlighting” with Griffith’s “moralism” and the “genteel culture of the Victorian era.” Early cinema’s pictorialism, in these terms, is reduced to moralizing and pre-modern affectation. One wonders why Dickens’ Victorian novels are triumphed as the forefathers to Griffith’s films, while the “Victorian” pictorialism of his compositions and lighting effects is not offered a similar filial piety.

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In his 1989 essay “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Theory Today,” Rick Altman offers a corrective to Eisenstein’s genealogy of classical film form—from Dickens’ novels to Griffith’s films— showing that theatrical melodramas and stage adaptations, not Victorian literature, served as the true antecedent of Griffin’s narrative structure. Returning to Hartmann’s writing to reassess the pictorialism of pre-classical cinema does not pose another corrective to this genealogy. Rather, Hartmann’s essays suggest an alternate genealogy, running parallel to the history of film form established by Eisenstein, Gunning, and Altman. Hartmann’s texts gesture to a cinematographic history of classical film that finds its roots in photographic pictorialism: a history that privileges the “esthetic significance of the motion picture” as much as its narrative cohesion—a history that values pictorial suggestion as distinct from cinematic “attractions” and narrative integration.

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Anna Schechtman is from New York. She is currently studying English at Yale.