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November 29, 2005

Art For Our Time - Christie Davies returns from the Franz Marc Retrospective in Munich and finds it a great success

Posted by Christie Davies

Franz Marc, Retrospective
Kunstbau Lenbachhaus, Munich
17th September 2005 - 8th January 2006
Tuesday - Sunday 10am - 8pm (Fridays until midnight)

Munich is Germany's finest city of art. It has a long and proud history, interrupted only by the twelve years of Hitler when the works of Franz Marc together with Germany's other modern artists were gathered together in an exhibition of Entartete Kunst, degenerate art. Even then the citizens of Munich flocked to the degenerate exhibition rather than to the museum up the road of the tedious neo-Classical Aryan art favoured by Hitler, a cross between Thorwaldsen and Tom of Finland in an SA cap. The Führer liked the portrayal of an idealised human perfection, something remarkable for a man of his asymmetry. In the earliest days a volunteer for the SS could be refused if he had even as much as a single filling in his teeth, ostensibly a military requirement but in fact a product of Hitler's ideology of art, state and race. Were the same high standards applied to the BDM?

It is worth going to the exquisite city of Munich and to the Franz Marc exhibition, which is within walking distance of the former Nazi shrine marking the place where the Bavarian police tried to shoot Hitler in 1923 but missed, just for the satisfaction of knowing that for once right has triumphed. There are of course other more compelling aesthetic reasons for going and you will not regret taking that flight by Lufthansa.

The Franz Marc exhibition consists of two parts, entered on one ticket. The early works from 1902-1909 are in the old Lenbachhaus building. His mature work, with its exciting colours, his blue horses as a mass of curves, the yellow cow leaping as if over the moon, the hard angled tiger are underground in the Kunstbau. In the Lenbachhaus there is also the chance to see the work of Marc's contemporaries and associates in the Blaue Reiter group.

Marc's early drawings show the endless practice that went into them and into the preparation of his early paintings. His early work is noticeable for his very affectionate treatment of his pets, his cats and dogs. The early horses are brown against green pastureland. Only later did he radically expand the range of his palette and reduce his animals to aggregates of shapes. It was this latter change that infuriated Hitler who saw art as the technically skilled reproduction of clear, realistic, uplifting scenes. Hitler contrasted this "healthy" art with the degenerate art of those like Marc who were innovators. The Fuhrer's choice of this particular opposition, the healthy versus the degenerate, shows how his view of art fitted into his general ideological outlook. Marc's ability to draw and paint in the conventional manner of an earlier time angered Hitler even more.

Henrietta Von Schirach, the daughter of Hitler's photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, whose work was celebrated recently at the National Portrait Gallery often discussed art with Hitler. When Hitler mocked Marc's work after it had been banned, she showed him the kind of careful and conventional drawings by Marc that are to be found in the early part of this exhibition. Hitler was not impressed and snapped:

He could even draw properly, so why didn't he do it?
Hitler, like Nikita Khrushchev after him, could not understand the skill that went into departing from conventional reality, only that which reproduced it. There is a curious rigidity about the socialist mind. Hitler called Impressionists and Expressionists alike "cultural Neanderthals". What would he have thought of recent research that purports to show that the Neanderthals communicated by singing - perhaps they had even mastered his favourite, Brunnhilde's Fire Song? Among archaeologists it is no longer politically correct to exclude Neander's thalers. They had a wonderful sense of rhythm.

What Marc showed in two striking paintings of women with cats, Akt mit Katze (Nude with Cat) 1910, and Madchen mit Katze II (Young Woman with Cat) 1912 was that the affectionate relationship between humans and their pets can be better captured by a wider, wilder use of form and colour. The bulky naked woman in the middle of a chaos of colour pressing on the neck of a small yellow cat to push it towards a saucer of milk succeeds where Venus with a Tabby could not. The young woman drawn as a set of stylised curves surrounding and protecting the red cat held in her long white hands brings out their mutual creatureliness in a way that would be hard to achieve with mere realism.

The same may be said of Der Tiger 1912 and Reh im Klostergarten (Deer in a monastery garden) 1912. The tiger, as blunt and squared as if cut from a yellow jade, sits alone among hard-edged blocks of colour in green, red, purple. The hardness is continued not in the shape of but in the look in its eye. The deer sits alert and vulnerable among the crystalline plants of the garden. The curators tell us that Marc saw this as "emotionalization" and "spiritualization", that he wanted to show not a depiction of the deer, but "how the deer feels". We feel, animals feel and we feel what we think animals feel. But the shape and colour of feeling is arbitrary. When Marc captures and conveys it to us successfully, he does so by intuition. His choice of colours is determined by the quality of each colour itself and the way it meets other colours at the boundaries of objects as in Kühe gelb-rot-grun (Cows yellow-red-green) 1911 or Die kleinen blauen Pferde (The Small Blue Horses) 1911, as dark, rounded and massive as their own shit dyed blue.

Marc and his contemporaries took unduly seriously the theories, or rather the wacky generalizations about colour of the Newton-hating Goethe and his latter day follower Rudolf Steiner. It may well be that Goethe and Steiner provided fruitful illustrations of how to combine colours and how to relate them to light and dark. But why should their notions prevail over other, different and indeed incompatible theories of colour? What criteria other than subjective preferences can be applied – but if that is the case why talk about colour in an abstract way at all? What colour should the yellow-red-green cows be? Why should some other appropriate set of colours not be as satisfying? Once a cow ceases to be cow-coloured then many different un-cow colours can be used to produce the effect you want.

The idea that the cow has spiritual qualities or that yellow is an appropriately joyful energetic colour for a leaping, proud-headed, udder-waggling cow is absurd. It may well be that Marc's success with paint depended on his illusion that animals have a purity or spiritual quality denied to humans but it is a delusion nonetheless.

In the years immediately before 1914 Marc became uneasy that Germany's encircling enemies would attack his country and set off a devastating war. We can see this in Die Wolfe, Balkankrieg (The Wolves, the Balkan War) 1913 where the wolves are long, fierce, lined up animals placed in bands across the picture. Meanwhile the backward Serbs, Bulgars, Greeks and Turks were fighting it out over parcels of land on the frontiers of Macedonia. It was in the Balkans that the Great War began. We still have Balkan wars today. Only America can save Europe from their disorder. In Das arme Land Tyrol (The poor land of Tyrol) 1913 we see a landscape savaged by war along the frontier with Italy marked by a customs post. In theory Italy was an ally, but in fact the Italian jackal coveted all the German-speaking territory south of the Brenner Pass. Today Süd Tyrol is still under Italian occupation as it was under Mussolini and is misleading referred to as Alto Adige. Marc was prescient.

Marc was becoming disillusioned with idea that animals were "spiritual" and now thought that only abstract paintings could convey spiritual qualities. As the bilingual son of an Alsatian mother, he knew that the French were prepared to risk anything to seize back the German-speaking provinces of Alsace-Lorraine they had lost in 1870 and that this made a world war inevitable. He now painted the coming conflict in abstract terms in Kampfende Formen (Fighting Forms) 1914, in which a swirling red Germany like a piece of savage seaweed presses back the black encircling tunnel that is France.

Marc was conscripted in 1914 and was killed by the French at Verdun in 1916, just after the Germans had decided to withdraw their most talented artists from the front line. We can surmise from his last works that he would have become more and more abstract in his compositions like his contemporaries still alive in the 1920s. It would have been an odd trajectory and here in Munich we are seeing its high point. Over time Marc had become more and more interested in shapes and colour for their own sake. Zwei liegende schwarze Katzen (Two black cats lying down) 1912-1913 and Zwei Katzen (Two Cats) 1913 are exercises exploring a tangle of cats forming a flow of colours. Why not just let the cats fade away, leaving an abstract grin behind, a mere massing of coloured rhombi or bands or amoebas? The answer is that the cats are the link between our everyday world of experience and that of this artist's exploration shapes and colours. The cats and the cows are necessary. They assist Marc's aims and do not detract from them.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction 2002. He has recently returned from Munich which agreed with him.


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I like the horses: it bears out what the Learned Professor has already said about Stubbs. To which may I add my opinion that the descendant of the Stubbs horse is the Thelwell horse. The noble beast having been de-animated by Stubbs & Co and turned into a piece of property for the landed gentry classes, Thelwell put in place of the missing horsey soul a puckish humanoid one.

But I see, following the link encapsulated in his long green piece of text near the end of the article, another statement of his hypothesis that it was the sexual delights of France that prompted Edward VII to foster the Entente Cordiale. I suspect, rather, that while these may have afforded him the time and place, the driving force was mutual family rivalry with Kaiser Bill. Not that I put the onus of blame on our own king - I understand that K.B. had been a nasty little brat who could have done with a large dose of the Super Nanny treatment. I'm sure all those palaces could have provided a suitable place for a Naughty Step.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 30, 2005 04:06 PM
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