Franz Marc at the Lenbachhaus, Munich
This wonderful small museum houses many of the most impressive examples of the Blau Reiter (Blue Rider) group formed in Munich in 1911 by Vasily Kandinsky, an expatriate Russian and Franz Marc, a native of the city, who rejected the perceived conservatism of the Neue Kunstlervereinigunng Munchen (the New Munich Artists Association). Kandinsky explained that the name grew from their shared enthusiasm both for the colour blue and the imagery surrounding horses and riding – but there may have been more complex reasons behind the choice of name, perhaps including underlying associations with Germanic traditions of Christian warrior knights.
Walking into the second room of the museum one is assailed by some of the most beautiful paintings produced during those hothouse years of European creativity before the Great War. This room is the repository for the work of Franz Marc featuring exquisite renderings of animals and the natural world. At once the colours and contours seem to enfold the viewer; the eye moves with ease along the delineation of each creature and its environment and by the way that the artist reduces the essential form of the animal to such a graceful conclusion.
In 1908 Marc wrote ‘I am trying to intensify my ability to sense the organic rhythm that beats in all things, to develop a pantheistic sympathy for the trembling flow of blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in air – I am trying to make a picture of it … with colours which make a mockery of the old kind of studio picture.’ This last reference was explained in a letter to his friend and fellow painter Auguste Macke: ‘Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual’. He went on to state that ‘Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy, and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two’.
These ideas about colour were combined with Marc’s intense sensibility for the natural world to produce lyrical paintings such as Blue Horse 1. The stallion stands amid a fauvist landscape of primary colour, his head slightly bowed as if engaged in introspection – a sentient being, almost godlike. ‘Spiritual’ blue accentuates the nobility of the animal, surrounded by the complementary colour in the landscape creating a satisfying whole. Marc later wrote that ‘animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me, People with their lack of piety … never touched my true feelings’.
The next year saw a slight shift in style. The Tiger crouches in the multicoloured undergrowth, the coiled, latent energy of the fearsome beast is palpable. Her burning eyes are intent on prey, or possibly danger – off canvas to the left. The viewer feels as if they are witnessing the split second before this magnificent animal explodes from its lair. Marc’s style has changed over the year. Gone are the flowing, fluent lines of the Blue Horse and in its place he uses angular blocks of colour, perhaps the better to express the graceful muscularity of the subject. However, Marc knew of the cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque as well as the work of Robert Delaunay which had already been shown in Munich – and in 1912 he was able to see their output again when they were part of a large exhibition in Cologne. Their influence is evident in The Tiger.
With Birds, painted in 1914, Marc moves a step closer towards a form of abstraction. As well as the continued impact of cubism another factor enters the frame – Italian Futurism (see Umberto Boccioni). Three birds inhabit the painting, the motion of their wings represented by a mass of splintered facets of colour. The result is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of movement like a finely cut gemstone being turned beneath a light source. As well as creating a ravishingly beautiful painting, with this work Marc shows that in 1914 he was in the vanguard of the move towards a new way of making art. It is one of the many tragedies of the blighted 20th Century that he was unable to fulfill his destiny.
Late in 1915 the German Chief of the General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, made the decision to attack French forces at Verdun. On February 21st 1916 the attack was launched and the ensuing battle, which lasted most of that year is considered to be one of the most terrible in the annals of armed conflict. One of those slaughtered on the hills surrounding Verdun was Franz Marc.