Franz Marc and the animalization of art


Franz Marc, Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses), 1911, oil on canvas, 121 x 183 cm (Harvard Art Museums)

Franz Marc, Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses), 1911, oil on canvas, 121 x 183 cm (Harvard Art Museums)

I am trying to heighten my sense of the organic rhythm of all things, trying to empathize pantheistically with the shivering and coagulating of blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in the air … I see no happier means to the animalization of art than the animal painting.Franz Marc, “Über das Tier in der Kunst,” translated in Vivian Endicott Barnett, ed., Franz Marc and August Macke 1909-1914 (Munich, London and New York, 2018), p. 48.

Franz Marc’s 1910 call for the “animalization of art” stakes out the ground that he would harvest for the most fertile and productive years of his career. Before his early death in World War I, Marc used animal paintings to express a pantheistic vision of the harmony between animals and their natural environment.

Pantheism

Pantheism (literally “all-God-ism”) is the belief that God is not separate from the universe that he created, but identical with it, immanent within it like “shivering and coagulating blood in nature, in animals, in the air.” Probably the most famous statement of the pantheist creed is that of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. In his 1798 poem Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth notes his feeling of a presence “deeply interfused” in nature “that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.”

Franz Marc, The World Cow, 1913, oil on canvas, 70.7 x 141.3 cm, (MoMA)

Franz Marc, The World Cow, 1913, oil on canvas, 70.7 x 141.3 cm, (MoMA)

As Marc noted in a 1915 letter to his wife, his own pantheism arose specifically from his disgust with modernity and human beings. Lamenting the “progress-hungry spirit of modern centuries,” Marc wrote: “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.”[1] Marc’s form of primitivism went further than that of his fellow Expressionists. They looked to the lives of peasants and so-called primitive cultures for inspiration; Marc looked all the way back to a state of nature before humankind even existed.

Expression through color and form

Marc’s animalization of art did not simply entail naturalistic paintings of animals in unspoiled landscapes. Already in The World Cow and Grazing Horses IV, we can see Marc intensifying the color and simplifying the drawing of his subjects, a tactic he takes even further in Large Blue Horses.

Franz Marc, Large Blue Horses, 1912, oil on canvas, 41-5/8 x 71-5/16 inches (Walker Art Center)

Franz Marc, Large Blue Horses, 1912, oil on canvas, 41-5/8 x 71-5/16 inches (Walker Art Center)

In all of these works, Marc uses primary and secondary colors in their most intensely saturated state. Bright red or blue animals graze in vibrant pastures of reds, greens, and yellows underneath rainbow skies. While the proportions, anatomy, and postures of the animals are accurate (he made a living teaching animal anatomy for a time), Marc has increasingly abstracted their forms toward basic, almost geometric shapes that echo into the distant landscape.

Robert Delaunay, Sun, Tower, Airplane, 1913, oil on canvas, 132.08 x 131.13 cm (Albright-Knox Art Gallery)

Robert Delaunay, Sun, Tower, Airplane, 1913, oil on canvas, 132.08 x 131.13 cm (Albright-Knox Art Gallery)

These are pictorial strategies that Marc initially picked up in encounters with works of the Impressionists and Van Gogh while on a trip to Paris in 1907, and then with Robert Delaunay’s Simultanist works in a subsequent trip in 1912. However, where Delaunay celebrated modern subjects, Marc avoided them. And despite the stylistic similarities between the two artists, there are crucial differences in intent.

How does a deer see the world?

The fracturing and fragmentation in Delaunay’s works are reflective of human perceptual tendencies: the way present sense-experiences awaken simultaneous echoes of past viewings in the mind. Marc expressly wished to avoid making paintings about human perception. Why reject painting corrupt human beings, and then execute works that reflect a specifically human way of looking at the world? In an essay entitled, “How does a Horse see the World?” Marc asks,

What does the doe have in common with the view of the world as it appears to people? Does it make any reasonable or artistic sense to paint the doe as it appears on our retina — or in the manner of the Cubists because we feel the world to be cubistic? Who says the doe feels the work to be cubistic? It’s the doe that feels, therefore the landscape must be “doelike.”[2]

Franz Marc, Deer in the Forest II, 1914, oil on canvas, 110 x 100 cm (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe)

Franz Marc, Deer in the Forest II, 1914, oil on canvas, 110 x 100 cm (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe)

It is of course impossible to know how a deer sees the world, but the distortion of form and intensification of color may be an attempt to represent the world as a deer sees it — as continuous with (and not separate from) herself. These more rectilinear, faceted works still reflect Marc’s desire to integrate animal and landscape. The angular fragments that make up the bodies of the three deer extend and echo into the surrounding forest, with the blue, red, green, and yellow colors scattered prismatically throughout.

Color and energy

Another way to look at Marc’s project is not in terms of objects or the perception of them, but rather in terms of energy and forces. Marc’s description of pantheism as an “organic rhythm,” as “the shivering and coagulating of blood in nature” suggests that the animals and landscape elements themselves are just temporary “coagulations” of matter and energy that are in a constant cycle of birth, life, death, decay, and rebirth. What is permanent and what permeates is the energy coursing through this cycle, expressed in the vibrancy of Marc’s color and the rhythms of his compositions.

Franz Marc, Yellow Cow, 1911, 140.7 x 189.2 cm (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY)

Franz Marc, Yellow Cow, 1911, 140.7 x 189.2 cm (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY)

Marc’s color theory, as inchoate as he acknowledged it to be, suggests such a reading:

Blue is the male principle, severe and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy, the color that has to come into conflict with, and succumb to the other two. For instance, if you mix blue — so serious, so spiritual — with red, you intensify the red to the point of unbearable sadness, and the comfort of yellow, the color complementary to violet, becomes indispensable …[3]

The gendering of colors, and especially the association of male with spiritual and female with sensual, is obviously sexist. It is also dubious to assert that colors have such specific and absolute meanings. Red surely signifies something very different in Edvard Munch’s The Scream than it does in Henri Matisse’s Joy of Life.

But we can generalize Marc’s theory to a series of coherent underlying propositions. Colors are not necessarily gendered, but they are generative in the sense that they can be endlessly recombined into new colors or new creations. Viewing colors and color combinations can induce sensations and moods: cheerfulness, heaviness, sadness, and so on. These colors and moods are sometimes harmonious, but sometimes clashing and in conflict.

It is a painter’s job to deploy the emotive and generative qualities of colors in order to produce formal tensions and harmonies that convey various psychological states. This provides an interesting new way to look at his work: one more focused on abstract qualities of design than the subject matter.

Toward abstraction

In the same letter where he talks about how he turned to animals as a more pure subject than humankind, Marc continues, “But then I discovered in [animals], too, so much that was ugly and unfeeling … Trees, flowers, the earth all showed me every year more and more of their deformity and repulsiveness — until now, suddenly, I have become fully conscious of nature’s ugliness and impurity.” In response to this new consciousness, Marc says his art changed as well: “Instinctively, by an inner compulsion, my presentation became more schematic or abstract.”[4]

Franz Marc, Fighting Forms, 1914, oil on canvas, 91 x 131 cm (Bavarian State Painting Collections, Munich)

Franz Marc, Fighting Forms, 1914, oil on canvas, 91 x 131 cm (Bavarian State Painting Collections, Munich)

In his last major works, the representational content is almost impossible to identify, and Marc’s paintings read as abstract interactions between primal spiritual forces, embodied in form and color. Titles such as Fighting Forms and Playful Forms reinforce this reading.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Marc was drafted into the German army as a cavalryman. Because of his painting skills, he was put to work for a time camouflaging artillery, and he amused himself by developing patterns inspired by Manet and Kandinsky. Unfortunately, he was later sent to the front, and died in the battle of Verdun on 4 March 1916 — ironically just days before orders came to withdraw him from combat as a notable artist.

Notes:

  1. Franz Marc, letter, 12 April 1915, as translated in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley, L.A. and London, 1968), p. 182.
  2. Franz Marc, “How does a Horse see the World?” translated in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley, L.A. and London, 1968), pp. 178-79.
  3. As translated in Shearer West, The Visual Arts in Germany, 1890-1937: Utopia and despair (Manchester and New York, 1988), p. 71.
  4. As translated in Chipp, p. 182.
Cite this page as: Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant, "Franz Marc and the animalization of art," in Smarthistory, April 11, 2020, accessed October 20, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/franz-marc-animal-art/.