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Through Animal Eyes

Munich had changed drastically since my last visit during the Carter administration. The Loden-coated war widows in the Konditorei were all gone, and the museums had rehung so much artwork I couldn’t find the Cranach masterpieces I’d come so far to see.

But other great works quickly filled the gap when I entered the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, after a morning with the sober, chiaroscuro landscapes and portraits so typical of the 19 th century Munich Academy. Housed in the 1891 Florentine-style villa of painter Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904), the collection pays magnificent tribute to the fate-tossed, pre-First World War Munich-based artists collectively known as Der Blaue Reiter—the Blue Rider—after their eponymous 1911-1912 exhibition and one-issue almanac. The names associated with this brilliant, and soon bereft, group of German Expressionists include (Russians) Alexei von Jawlensky and his lover Marianne von Werefkin, (Swiss) Paul Klee, August Macke, Gabriel Münter and her lover (Russian) Wassily Kandinsky, who, together with Franz Marc (1880-1916), formed the association’s “brains.” They verbalized its thinking and orchestrated its presence in an especially rich period that produced Jugendstil, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, and various Expressionist movements such as Dresden’s Die Brücke and Vienna’s Sezession.

Marc is one of the very few artists who used animals to achieve his goal of spiritualizing art, and he revolutionized how they’re depicted. “How does a horse see the world, how does an eagle, a deer or a dog?” he asked. “How impoverished, soulless is our convention of placing animals in a landscape familiar to our own eyes rather than transporting ourselves into the soul of the animal in order to divine its visual world.” Marc portrayed his animals from an empathetic point of view, visualizing their universe through their eyes. “From now on we must stop thinking of animals and plants only in relationship to ourselves and stop portraying them from our point of view in art. That belongs to the past . . . .

The concept of animals and plants perceiving their environment, or Umwelt , on their own terms, formulated by Jacob von Uexküll (1864-1944), was surely known to Marc. But Marc’s path to his vividly colored, statuesque blue horses, leaping yellow cows, kaleidoscopic birds, violet foxes, and many oils, drawings, and watercolors of roe deer is attributed to his 1905 meeting the sickly French Swiss animal artist Jean Bloé Niestlé (1884-1942), who steered him toward transforming his love of animals from an objective, third-person view into a subjective, expressive art.

Marc’s father, after studying law, became a successful landscape painter and professor at the Munich Academy; his Alsatian mother, originally the governess of her husband’s sister’s children, was a strict Calvinist in Catholic Bavaria with little appreciation for “The Arts.” As a child, Marc didn’t demonstrate any particular artistic brilliance. In fact, he waffled between the ministry and philology until completing his military service as a corporal.

He then entered the Munich Academy of his father’s era—a bastion of reality-based conservative earthy-colored naturalism, which focused more on relative tones than on the range of colors. After discovering Impressionism during a three-month stay in Paris, Marc dropped out of the Academy in 1903 and abandoned an academic style of painting forever.

But he soon found Impressionism too pictorial, “too moderate, lacking in fortissimo,” when he was striving for “space and soul-sheltering” colors—ca dmium and cobalt blue, cinnabar and carmine red —that he used abstractly as a means of personal expression. Influenced by Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse, he soon released himself entirely from reality-based colors, instead attributing them specific symbolic emotional significance: “Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow is the female, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy.” Blue and red together express unbearable sorrow, comforted by yellow; blue and orange are always “a harmony of celebration.”

Colors were also the building blocks of his dynamic, forcefully constructed compositions that create scale, motion, and point of view. For example, by seeing fields of yellow stretching in the distance or rhythmic jigsaws of hills, roads, and rainbows from over an animal’s shoulder, Marc defined its perspective on its universe.

After an early affair with an older, married woman and a disastrous first marriage, the impoverished artist and his second wife, Maria Franck, settled in Sindelsdorf in Upper Bavaria, 60 kilometers from Munich, where he scratched out a living teaching art and selling antiques and the odd painting; Kandinsky and Münter were just down the road in Murnau.

By 1907-08, Marc was primarily painting non-representational animals harmoniously interwoven with their environment. In his 1909 Deer at Dusk, though his palette is still naturalistic, the interacting shapes of the deer fill the canvas, drawing the viewer sympathetically into it, rather than simply looking at it.

By 1911, any objective true-to-life conventions were out the door. Instead, Marc sought an emotional response from the viewer by placing the subject in a situation, adding emotional tension even when his deer are resting. His works now had their own spatial reality, like the ethereal Deer in the Snow, where with sweeping brushstrokes the harmonious arabesque forms of the deer are echoed in the musical, curvy clouds framing them.

In the greatly beloved Deer in the Forest (1912), a sleeping deer is nestled in the fancifully colored woods, protected against a raging wind that has toppled a tree trunk diagonally across the canvas, helping delineate the fractured space and allowing the viewer to experience the deer’s safety, as it does, in the storm. “We will no longer paint a forest or a horse as we like them or as they seem to us, but as they really are, as the forest and the horse feel themselves to be.”


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Influenced by Italy’s Futurism, the landscape in Deer in a Monastery Garden (1912) is broken into dynamically radiating shapes of the moon, trees, and mountains. The simple turning of the deer’s head provides the painting’s narrative. Originating also in his 1913 friendship with Orphism’s Robert Delaunay, Marc’s vivid colors, varying lines, and faceted spacing visually create pulsing rhythm or fluid motion. “My aims lie not in the direction of specialized animal painting. I seek a good, pure and lucid style . . . I am trying to achieve a pantheistic empathy with the throbbing and racing of the blood in nature, in trees, in animals in the air . . . to feel the inner trembling animal life.”

The roe deer in Marc’s 1913 illustrations for Flaubert’s Legend of St. Julian the Hospitable are both poignant and visionary. In one, the cowering deer, helmeted rider, and ram-rodding logs recall the harassment of the cross-bearing Christ by a Roman soldier, while Slain Deer is tantamount to a raw Pietà without the consolation of mourners.

Expressionism was Marc’s way of spiritualizing art, of describing the larger unity between animals and environment as well as shapes and space . In visual terms, this is exemplified in his 1914 kaleidoscopic Deer in the ForestII, in which “mysterious lines and color harmony seek to create spiritual moods, which have little to do with the subject portrayed.”

Like that of Kandinsky and Klee, Marc’s work evolved into an increasingly abstract battle and balance between colors and forms. Yet still in April 1915, he wrote to his wife: “I think a lot about my own art . . . The ungodly people around me (particularly the men) did not arouse my true feelings, whereas the undefiled vitality of animals called forth everything good in me . . . I found people ‘ugly’ from early on; animals seemed to me more beautiful, more pure.”

We’ll never know Marc’s full trajectory as an artist because, like many of his generation, he believed that Europe’s materialistic, bourgeois society needed spiritual purification and rebirth. Thinking the malaise that had settled over the continent could be swept away only by the blood sacrifice of war, he enlisted as an officer in the reserve. Instead, the first weeks of World War I swept away Marc’s closest friend with whom he debated color theory, the utterly brilliant and well-connected 27-year-old artist, August Macke, on the battlefields of Champagne.

Although awarded the Iron Cross and promoted to lieutenant, Marc became increasingly disillusioned with war, writing, “It is terrible to think of, and all for nothing, for a misunderstanding, for want of being able to make ourselves tolerably understood by our neighbors.” After 19 months of service, while on reconnaissance on horseback in March 1916, Marc was struck in the head by a grenade fragment near the town of Braquis, 20 kilometers from Verdun.

In 1933, the Nazis declared his works degenerate; many were seized and sold abroad. More disappeared in the 1945 bombing of Berlin.

Unfortunately, Marc’s special Expressionism doesn’t live on in 99 percent of today’s animal artists, who still favor copying nature over embracing it.

Brooke was the only one still wearing Loden during two Christmases spent visiting the museums, homes, lakes, and cafes in Munich and Upper Bavaria associated with Kandinsky, Münter, and Marc.



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