Franz Marc - Biography and Legacy
German Painter and Printmaker
Biography of Franz Marc
Childhood and Education
Franz Marc was born in Munich, Germany on February 8, 1880. His father, Wilhelm Marc, was an amateur landscape painter. Under the influence of his artistic father, Marc's artistic talent was evident from a young age, but he did not decide to pursue a career in painting until after completing his military service.
In 1900, Marc enrolled in the Munich Academy of Art, but the curriculum's focus on natural realism left him dissatisfied. While enrolled at the academy, he became acquainted with the Jugendstil art movement, whose popular decorative motifs emphasized the use of expressive line to depict natural forms and structures. The Jugendstil artists inspired Marc to break free of the strict confines of naturalism taught in the academy. Marc's earliest paintings from this period (dating to around 1902) suggest a young artist experimenting with new styles that were at odds with the styles espoused by the academy. The most notable feature of these early paintings is their bold, expressive color. They also feature flat, two dimensional backgrounds, which echo the style of the Jugendstil artists.
In 1903, Marc spent six months in Paris studying modern and Impressionist paintings. At that time he met the French artist, Jean Niestle, who was famous for painting animals. Niestle's animals were depicted with the same soft, expressive lines found in Japanese woodblock prints. Perhaps due to Niestle's influence, Marc started to depict animals in his own paintings as early as 1905. He returned to Paris in 1907, on the eve of his ill-fated first marriage, "to calm his anguished and vacillating soul in van Gogh's wonderful pictures." In the years that followed he experimented with Impressionism and Pointillism, but found them unsatisfactory for his own work. This was partially based on his interest in color; he desired a palette that would echo the rhythm of his expressive linear forms. Ultimately, Marc turned to the Fauves, who appealed to him for a number of reasons. Not only did they use vibrant and distorted colors, but they also sought to record primitive life and to depict the relationship between man and nature, a goal that would become ever more important to Marc as well.
However, Marc's paintings still retained the moody, representational forms that were favored in academic naturalism. Upon his return to Munich, he threw himself into the study of the anatomy of animals. Later, when living in Berlin, he spent countless hours at the Berlin Zoo studying and sketching the forms of animals from every conceivable angle. Through rigorous and disciplined study, he created a general concept of animal and human forms. The image of the animal continued to become ever more prominent in his art, almost replacing the human form entirely. For Marc, animals were the ideal subject matter for depicting truth, purity, and beauty. He said, "on the whole, instinct has never failed to guide me . . . especially the instinct which led me away from man's awareness of life and towards that of a 'pure' animal. . . . an animal's unadulterated awareness of life made me respond with everything that was good." Marc's animals served as reflections of nature, imitating the regularity with which certain forms occur in nature.
During the years 1908 and 1909, Marc began to combine his newfound interest in anatomy with the intense, symbolic color palette of the Fauves. Like them, Marc felt that the dream was the truest expression of reality. He believed that every fantasy was based in fact. The biggest turning point in his career and personal life came in 1910, when Marc became friends with the artist August Macke. The two men developed a friendship that involved travel and study - a true friendship of equals. Around this time, Marc found himself keeping company with other like-minded, painters, including Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky, was a founding member of the Munich Neue Kunstler Vereinigung (NKVM), (Munich New Artists Federation) - a group that believed in an analytical spiritual mysticism. His paintings sought to elicit a similar emotional effect as listening to music. He even went as far as to refer to his paintings as "compositions." Macke, though younger than Marc, had already achieved some success in employing color in his paintings to express conflict and harmony. Under the influence of Macke, Marc began to experiment with a color theory of his own, one that would best depict the emotional intensity of his subject matter. By late 1910, he had developed his color theory in which: "Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, happy and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the color to be opposed and overcome by the other two."
The NKVM disbanded in 1910 due to mounting artistic tensions. As if to fill the void left by NKVM, Marc and Kandinsky co-founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in 1911. Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke (The Bridge) were the two main branches of German Expressionism. The members of Die Brucke were united by a common artistic style, particularly a preference for bold colors and simplified, flattened forms. The Blue Rider artists, however, were instead unified by a common ideology, of creative freedom for artists to express their personal vision in whatever manner they deemed appropriate. Both groups were interested in depicting nature and the universe as a means of self-expression, not unlike the Romantic artists of the previous century. The symbolic and psychological function of color was an integral part of Der Blaue Reiter's program. Marc's own belief system revolved around pantheism, and his work repeatedly depicts nature as if seen through the eyes of an animal or other "primal" figure.
In 1912, he met the French artist Robert Delaunay, whose dynamic Cubist style was already well known among the Der Blaue Reiter artists. Marc's artworks, which up to this point were still very representational in form, started to become noticeably more Cubist. Under Delaunay's influence he began to experiment with simultaneous color contrast, which created an effect that resembled the early works of Picasso and Braque. His painting Tiger (1912) showcases this well.
By 1913, Marc's work, like that of his contemporaries, became increasingly apocalyptic. Along with this shift came a change in how Marc viewed animals. In fact, he began to see animals as almost as impure as human beings. He wrote, "from one year to the next, trees, flowers, the earth, everything showed me more and more ugly and repulsive sides, and it was not until now that I became aware of the hideousness of nature and its impurity." His tense and conflicted feelings are evident in his paintings from that year, including Fate of the Animals, Tyrol, and The Tower of Blue Horses. In spite of the tension in these paintings, Marc believed that the war would be a purifying force that would rid the world of all that was evil and putrid. Through the ritualistic cleansing of war, he believed the world, especially the natural world, would regenerate.
By the following year, 1914, World War I had broken out, and Marc's work moved towards complete abstraction. That year, he worked on a series of four abstract paintings, Cheerful Forms, Playing Forms, Forms in Combat, and Broken Forms, that showcased his final move away from representational painting toward works that were completely dedicated to form. Later that year, Marc enthusiastically enlisted in the German Army as a cavalryman. Writing to Kandinsky, he said of the war, "this is the only way of cleaning out the Augean stable of Europe." Indeed, Marc was so enthusiastic that he asked, "Is there a single person who does not wish this war might happen?" His good friend Macke also enlisted in 1914, and died in combat later that year, devastating Marc. Marc himself was killed in action at the Battle of Verdun on March 4, 1916.
The Legacy of Franz Marc
As a leading figure in the German Expressionist movement, Marc helped redefine the nature of art. The Expressionist movement was known for of its interest in spirituality and primitivism, and its use of abstraction. Marc incorporated his love of theology and animals into his work to create an alternate, more spiritual, vision of the world. He depicted the world as seen through the eyes of animals, who he used to highlight those aspects of modernity that he viewed unfavorably. But his later work also moved beyond representational forms into pure abstraction, leading the way for the next generation of painters.
Though his career was brief, his expressive linear forms and symbolic use of color had a lasting impact on the worlds of abstraction and expressionism. Indeed, artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning can be called Marc's descendants. These artists were inspired by Marc's ability to generate a sense of emotion with his interest in the spiritual and the primitive, as well as his use of bright colors. The Abstract Expressionists built upon Marc's contributions by creating paintings that emphasized more minimal, generalized forms that focused primarily on linear expression and color. These new approaches to Expressionism sought to highlight the artists' personal struggles with the changes that came after the end of World War II. Later generations of expressionists, such as Color Field artists who took expressionism to its most minimalist, simplified state, can be viewed as descendants of Marc and his contemporaries. Indeed, Franz Marc, as a founding member of German Expressionism, was instrumental in helping to define modernism in the 20th century and beyond.