Franz Marc's fame today rests above all on animal paintings. The popularity of his missing Tower of Blue Horses rivals the flower paintings of Emil Nolde. But while Nolde lived to paint to a ripe old age, the period in which Marc created his best-known pictures was limited to a bare four years. It took Marc ten years to pass from the traditional painting of the Munich Academy, via various stylistic excursions, to the language of form which finally crystallized into his personal style. During this time - around 1910 - he met like-minded artists such as August Macke (1887-1914) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). The years between 1911 and 1914 saw not only the production of his most important works but also his publication, with Kandinsky, of the "Blaue Reiter" almanac, his organization of the exhibition of the same name and his emergence as an influential force in the German art world. These politio-cultural activities and his - in part militant - writings on painting offer vital insights into the artist himself. In 1914, just as he began to free himself from the object and to produce his earliest abstract paintings, Marc volunteered for military service. Two years later he fell - at the age of just thirty six - at Verdun.
Franz Marc was a man of deep religious feeling. Born into the cultured family of a painter (his father Wilhelm) he was brought up in the protestant faith of his French mother. Unlike many of his contemporaries Marc's interest in art met with encouragement, as did his his interest in religion. These coupled with an equally strong interest in philology made for an interesting start to young Franz's career. Due in no small part to the enthusiasm of a local pastor, Marc first decided to be a clergyman. Then, a year later in 1898 he changed his mind preferring to study philosophy with a view to becoming a senior school teacher. He applied to, and was awarded a place at, Munich's philosophy faculty, but first he took a year out for voluntary military service. During the course of his training he came to the conclusion that, in fact, what he had really wanted to do all along was paint! However he did not view this time as wasted but rather felt that it had been necessary to confirm 'what is right for my nature'.
Dog Lying in the Snow, 1910/11 - Oil on canvas, 62.5 x 105 cm Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut.
It is a curious quirk of history that although his studies brought him under the same roof as his future friends and companions Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, he did not get to know them and it was to be another ten years before they would join forces under the banner of 'The Blue Rider'. Instead, during his three years Marc attained a solid training in 19th century, pre-Impressionist painting techniques but as he was unusually starved of exposure to modern developments in art this training was to confuse him. His development as an artist was eclectic and difficult. This was nothing rare for artists however as in this period it seemed that the foundations of art were being shaken and reconstructed beneath their feet.
Red Deer, II, 1912, Oil on canvas, 70 x 100 cm, Munich, Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst.
He left the Academy in 1903 and first indulged in an uneasy flirtation with Impressionism. When he met the painter Jean Bloé Niestlé in 1905, things began to improve. Since leaving the Academy, Marc had missed somewhat the company of other artists and as well as becoming good friends with his new acquaintance he was inspired by his work. Niestlé specialised in animal paintings and through him Marc rediscovered a love for animals which he had long harboured. With Niestlé's encouragement Marc began to see a new avenue for his paintings. For some time Marc had been having problems finding a painting style which he could identify with. It now seemed to him that the subject of his painting may partly have been the cause of his indifference.
Deer at Dusk, 1909, oil on canvas, Munich Lenbachhaus.
Notable in his work is the lack of portraiture. The accompanying self-portrait is one of the few portraits Marc painted after leaving the Academy. In a letter Marc wrote to his wife in 1915 he says, 'I found people 'ugly' very early on; animals seemed to me more beautiful, more pure.' It is not surprising, given his religiously sensitive nature that Marc found people difficult to admire. It is significant that he based himself in the countryside at Sindlesdorf near Munich. As such he was part of a small artistic community including artists such as Niestlé and Campendonk and near Kandinsky at Murnau. This was quite unlike the seedier art world of Berlin, home of the contemporary Die Brucke artists. There the artistic and literary community mixed at night in cafes filled with drugs and prostitutes.
The Bull, 1911, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
It is typical of Marc and his wife Maria that when they made contacts with the art world in Berlin, they also made close and diverse friends. These contacts did not always have happy outcomes though. One such contact was with the poetess Else Lasker-Schuler who was to say the least an eccentric of the first degree. She often went around dressed as the character Prince Jussuf whom she created in her writings. Throughout their friendship Marc sent painted postcards to her and they built up a fictional relationship with him fulfilling the function of a high priest who was leading her to salvation. In fact Marc was trying to do something very similar in real life. To encourage her to break free from what he viewed as the depressing lack of spiritual purity in the corrupt and sordid life of Berlin, he invited her to come and stay at Sindlesdorf. Eventually she accepted their invitation but things did not go as planned. She found that without the Berlin society to support her she could not maintain her fragile and artificial persona. She quickly returned to Berlin.
Blue Horse, I, 1911, Oil on canvas, 112.5 x 84.5 cm Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus.
This is exactly the sort of incident that must have devastated Marc. His belief in the healing powers of a spiritually pure life would have been profoundly shaken by the fact that a woman whom he loved as a sister could crave a lifestyle which seemed so corrupt and nightmarish to him. Humans would always disappoint them and not even he could live up to the ideals which he set. His obsessive painting of animals can be seen as a way of avoiding the let downs of people. He actually also owned animals and in April 1914 he bought a large country house at Ried where he kept a couple of deer.
Blue-Black Fox, 1911, oil on canvas, Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal.
However the letter which I have already quoted, 'I found people ugly… animals seemed more beautiful', carries on despondently, 'but then I discovered in them too, so much that was ugly and unfeeling.. Suddenly I have become fully conscious of nature's ugliness and impurity.'
This sort of statement coming from the famous animal painter Franz Marc is quite simply astounding until, perhaps, we look more closely at the paintings themselves. One of the things which Marc attempted to do in his animal paintings was to depict the world as seen through his subject's eyes. Thus it was that in painting 'Tiger' from 1912, Marc creates a rather sinister spiky background which somehow suggests the tiger's ferocity and unpredictability. In 'Birds' from 1914 Marc's style is showing more and more influence of Cubism but the empathy with his subjects remains. The only fixed, definitely in focus parts we see of the birds are their heads. The angles, which suggest rapidly beating wings, break out from the central bird and by clever modulations of colour are seen to merge into the sky or forest below. The green, which seems to be exploding in the middle of the canvas is suggestive, in its shaping, of the tops of pine trees and the way that they emanate from a point at the bottom of the canvas, a device which I will later use in my related studies conclusion, gives a dizzying illusion of height. The central bird's yellow colour is drawn out behind it in a way which is similar to Delauney's fragmented window views of the Eiffel Tower. Noteworthy also are the blue masses at the top right of the canvas. They are probably depictions of blue mountains which Marc used as symbols for his spiritual ideals.
Monkey Frieze, 1911, Oil on canvas, 76 x 134.5 cm, Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Despite Marc's attempt to see through the eyes of his subject he is often accused of anthropomorph-isation, and rightly so. Whether consciously or not Marc gives the animals he paints poses or expressions which are distinctly human. One also gets a strong emotional sense from the painting which at most seems to be an impression of how it might feel if you were the animal. His paintings may even come across as allegories for human emotions which is certainly not what he intended but not altogether unsurprising given his apparent desire to avoid human subject and thus human realities in his work.
Marc's identification with the spiritually pure animal actually prevents him from achieving the glimpse of the animal's spirit which he was trying to achieve. His realisation of this may be what prompted his surprising comment in the above quoted letter. In realising this he must also have realised that in his identification he was attributing his subjects with spiritual depths which perhaps they did not possess.