Wild Creatures Caught on Canvas : Notes on Franz Marc
Feb. 8 is the birthday of a German artist who turned to painting animals when mankind disappointed him. Marc was a member of the Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group whose members advanced abstract art in the early 20th century.
Franz Marc (1880–1916) took refuge in other creatures when his fellow humans fell short of expectations.
Around age 27 in 1907, Marc narrowed his focus largely to paintings of animals. He explained his reasons in a 1915 letter. An excerpt of an English translation from this letter often appears in articles about Marc.
“People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings. But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that is good in me,” Marc wrote.
Marc gave serious thought to the images he included in his paintings and the colors he used. Like his friend and colleague Vassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Marc intended to make the viewer consider spiritual aspects of the material world.
Blue Horses — and Yellow Cows
Marc and Kandinsky spearheaded a loosely organized group of artists known as the Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter), which held shows between 1911 and 1914. The name of the group reflects Russian-born Kandinsky’s interest in the theme of riders on horseback and Marc’s adoration of horses.
The common interests of the Blue Rider group included a search for spiritual expression in art. Kandinsky and Marc, for example, pegged colors to emotions.
“For Marc, different hues evoked gender stereotypes: yellow, a ‘gentle, cheerful and sensual’ color, symbolized femininity, while blue, representing the ‘spiritual and intellectual,’ symbolized masculinity,” notes the Guggenheim webpage for the painting seen below, “Yellow Cow.”
The website for the Guggenheim Museum includes detailed and interesting descriptions for several of Marc’s works. Much of this information appears to draw from the work of former longtime Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to my bibliography on European artists. It includes an entry for Marc with details on the Guggenheim webpages and other resources I’ve used.)
It may have seemed odd to a reader familiar with Marc that the title of this essay refers to “wild creatures.” Marc is perhaps best known for his paintings of horses, which are largely domesticated, and cows, which seem even less likely to run free of man.
But take a good look at Marc’s horses and cows. These are amazing creatures. In Marc’s paintings, horses and cows often do seem to be independent of humans.
Born in 1880 in Munich, Marc was the son of a landscape painter. In the early 20th century, when Marc was reaching adulthood, a back-to-nature movement swept Germany, wrote Spector, the former longtime Guggenheim curator.
“Artists’ collectives and nudist colonies sprung up in agricultural areas in the conviction that a return to the land would rejuvenate what was perceived to be an increasingly secularized, materialistic society,” Spector wrote. “A seminarian and philosophy student turned artist, Franz Marc found this nature-oriented quest for spiritual redemption inspiring.”
Marc studied art in his hometown of Munich amid bouts of depression. While pursuing a more experimental style of painting, Marc earned steady income by giving lessons in animal anatomy lessons to fellow artists. Trips to Paris and traveling exhibitions in his native Germany expanded Marc’s tastes. He reveled in the work of modern artists, including Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, the Cubists and Henri Matisse.
Two Frenchmen who pursued their own visions of art particularly influenced Marc’s work — Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) and Robert Delaunay (1885–1941).
Jungles and the Abstract
“No artists were more enthusiastic about Rousseau than Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee and the other members of the German group Blaue Reiter,” wrote Roderick Conway Morris in the New York Times.
Morris’ New York Times article was a review of an exhibit that looked at the effect Rousseau’s work has had on generations of artists. Largely self-taught, Rousseau turned seriously to painting only in middle-age. He shared Marc’s love of animals.
Rousseau never left France, never set foot in a jungle. But Rousseau took inspiration from the zoos and gardens of Paris for works such as “Tiger in a Tropical Storm or Surprised!” shown below.
Marc’s view on life and art grew darker as World War I approached. With this shift, he became increasingly interested in abstraction. His last work on his one-time favored subject, horses, appears to have been the one below.
“Rather than portraying the natural world from the point of view of the individual animal, Marc now saw his subjects as part of a larger unified field and treated them in terms of the overall structure of the composition,” notes the Guggenheim’s webpage description of “Stables.”
In “Stables,” Marc has broken up his beloved horses in this painting and scattered them amid the details of the stable. They are an element of the painting. The play of shapes, though, is the star.
The shifting planes and intense color of “Stables” echo the style of Delaunay, whom Marc had met during a trip to Paris, the Guggenheim’s webpage notes.
But Delaunay was an optimist, swept up with the promise of technology, a man continually on the lookout for a brighter future.
Marc turned to abstraction when his faith in animals wore thin. Below is the English translation of a passage of Marc’s writing, cited by art historian Marcella Lista and others.
“Very early I found people to be ‘ugly’: animals seemed more beautiful, more pure. But then I discovered them, too, so much that was ugly and unfeeling — and instinctively by an inner compulsion, my presentation became more schematic or more abstract,” Marc wrote.
“Trees, ﬂowers, the earth, all showed me every year more and more of their deformity and their repulsiveness — until now, suddenly I have become fully conscious of nature’s ugliness and impurity. Perhaps it is our European point-of-view that makes the world look poisoned and distorted. This is why I dream of a new Europe,” Marc added.
Yet Spector, formerly of the Guggenheim, sees Marc’s faith in the natural world surviving even in one of his darkest works, The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol.
The painting shows the devastation caused by the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 which presaged the larger European battle to come.
“The cemetery and emaciated horses portend doom, but Marc’s faith in the ultimate goodness of nature and the regenerative potential of war prevails: the rainbow and bird with outstretched wings reflect a promise of redemption through struggle,” Spector wrote.
Marc enlisted in 1914 in the German army and died in 1916 in combat in World War I. But he left behind a significant body of work to enjoy, especially for animal lovers.
Click here to find my bibliography of works consulted about the lives and works of European artists. This includes an entry on Marc. For more on Delaunay, here’s a link to my essay “Colorful Painter Who Traveled in Good Company.” For more on Rousseau, here’s a link to my essay “Escapism at Its Finest.” Delaunay and Rousseau were friends and allies.