Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” wrote Mary Oliver inof the masterpieces from her suite of poems celebrating the urgency of aliveness, .
In the bleak winter of 1916, in the thickest darkness of World War I, several enormous canvases dappled in pointillist patterns of color appeared across the French countryside, as if Kandinsky or Klee had descended upon the war-torn hills to bandage the brutality with beauty. But no. The painted tarps were military camouflage, designed to conceal artillery from aerial observation — the work of the young German painter, printmaker, and Expressionist pioneer Franz Marc (February 8, 1880–March 4, 1916), who had devoted himself to parting the veil of appearances with art to “look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature.”
Conscripted into the German Imperial Army at the outbreak of the war, midway through his thirties and just after a period of extraordinary creative fecundity, Marc found this improbable outlet for his artistic vitality during his military service. Unlikely to have had any practical advantage over standard camouflage, his colossal canvases are almost certain to have served as a psychological lifeline for the young artist drafted into the machinery of death.
Within a month of painting them, Marc was dead — a shell explosion in the first days of the war’s most extended battle sent a metal splinter into his skull, killing him instantly while a German government official was compiling a list of prominent artists to be recalled from military service as national treasures, with Marc’s name on it.
He produced the paintings in those ecstatically prolific years just before he drafted The Fate of the Animals — an arresting depiction of the interplay of beauty, brutality, terror, and tenderness in the chaos of life. An inscription appeared under the canvas in Marc’s hand: “And all being is flaming agony.”
Destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1916, The Fate of the Animals was restored by Marc’s close friend, who painstakingly recreated the oil canvas from surviving photographs.
Animals, Marc felt, were in many ways superior to humans — more honest in their expression of their inner truths, in more direct contact with the inner realities of nature:
Animals, with their virginal sense of life, awakened all that was good in me.
In 1910, just before he turned thirty, Marc became a founding member of The Blue Rider. This journal became an epicenter of the German Expressionist community, including artists like Kandinsky, who had just formalized his thinking on, and Klee. At the end of that year, Marc began corresponding with the twenty-two-year-old writer and pianist Lisbeth Macke, who was married to one of the Blue Rider artists, about the relationship between color and emotion through the lens of music. A century after Goethe devised his , Macke and Marc created a synesthetic color wheel of tones, assigning somber sounds to blue, joyful sounds to yellow, and brutality of discord to red. Marc went on to ascribe not only emotional but spiritual attributes to the primary colors, writing to Macke:
Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow, the female principal, is gentle, cheerful, and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy, and always the color which must be fought and defeated by the other two!
Further exploring the analogy between music and color, Marc envisioned music’s equivalent without tonality in painting. In this sensibility, “a so-called dissonance is simply a consonance apart,” producing a harmonic effect in the overall composition, color, and sound.
Twenty years after Marc’s death on the battlefields of the First World War, when the forces of terror that had fomented it oozed into the Second, the Nazis declared his art “degenerate.” Many of his paintings went missing after WWII, last seen in a 1937 Nazi exhibition of “degenerate” art alongside several of Klee’s paintings. Marc’s art is believed to have been seized by Nazi leaders for their theft collections. An international search for his painting The Tower of Blue Horses has been underway for decades. In 2012, another of his missing paintings of horses was discovered in the Munich home of the son of one of Hitler’s art dealers, along with more than a thousand other artworks the Nazis denounced as “degenerate” in their deadly ideology but welcomed into their private living rooms as works of transcendent beauty and poetic power.
The title poem of Mary Oliver’sembodies the original meaning of empathy, which became popular in the early twentieth century as . The poet launches herself into Marc’s painting The Large Blue Horses, running her hand gently through one animal’s blue mane, letting another’s nose touch her gently, as she reflects on Marc’s tragic, tremendous life that managed to make such timeless portals into beauty and tenderness amid unspeakable brutality:
I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.