Few artists tickle my sense of humor as much as Franz Marc, especially through works such as The Yellow Cow (above, from 1911). Born February 8, 1880, Marc specialized in painting animals of all kinds in unique poses against fantastic backgrounds in one of the more unique personal interpretations of Expressionism. The sight of The Yellow Cow exuberantly leaping across the picture strikes a note of simple, animal joy that precious few Expressionist works hit, thanks mainly to the social strain placed on the collective artistic psyche in the lead-up to World War I. Rather than fall into that same pit of despair, Marc chose to “talk” with the animals, developing a dialogue with the carefree existence of his pets and the more exotic animals he saw in zoos.
Marc, however, was not facile painter of a single emotion. Like so many other German artists right after 1900, Marc fell under the spell of the art and recently translated letters of Vincent van Gogh and sought to add a spiritual aspect to his art through the use of color. I’ve always thought of Marc’s The Tiger (above, from 1911) as a distant cousin to William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” in its exploration of the dynamic of beauty and destructive power in a singe living being such as the tiger. With August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky, Marc formed Der Blaue Reiter and exchanged ideas on the philosophy of art with his fellow artists. To make an animal actually appear to think, as I believe Marc does in The Tiger, that artist needs to do a lot of thinking himself.
As World War I seemed more and more inevitable, Marc pondered the fate of the world, but rather than portray people facing the coming storm, he depicted animals in peril in The Fate of the Animals (above, from 1913). Through a series of almost prismatic lines, Marc creates a great sense of tension in The Fate of the Animals. The vibrantly colored animals seemed trapped within the forest, unable to escape their sad fate. Sadly, Marc himself seemed trapped by an inescapable fate. Just after an order had been issued to remove notable artists from combat, including Marc, he was killed by an artillery shell in 1916. Over a short span of just 5 years, Franz Marc created a body of work that showed an entirely new way of looking at Expressionism and a whole new way of thinking about animals and nature and, through them, humanity’s place in the world.