The mystical Modernism of Franz Marc, whose art was a ‘bridge into the spirit world’
Alongside Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc — whose career was cruelly cut short by the Great War — was at the heart of the Expressionist group of artists known as Der Blaue Reiter. His 1913 masterpiece The Foxes was offered in London on 1 March 2022
On the 20th anniversary of Franz Marc’s untimely death, his friend and co-conspirator Wassily Kandinsky wrote, ‘It is sad that, beyond the Rhine, so little importance has been attached to commemorating one of Germany’s finest artistic hopes.’
Marc was a visionary who shared Kandinsky’s belief in the spiritual nature of colour, and together they founded the radical movement Der Blaue Reiter — also know as The Blue Rider — which made the case for a mystical modern art.
‘Art has always been and is in its very essence the boldest departure from nature,’ wrote Marc in 1912. ‘It is the bridge into the spirit world.’
Franz Marc, Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow), 1911. Formerly in the collection of Franz Werner Kluxen. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence
Mysticism and a yearning for spirituality are not generally associated with Modernism, but both artists were fascinated by theosophy and the elemental forces of nature. They believed that when the material world eventually came to an end, all that would remain would be souls communicating through coloured auras.
This religiosity almost certainly dated back to Marc’s childhood. Born in Munich in 1880, he was a child of the Romantic generation. His father was a landscape painter and his mother a devout Calvinist, and the artist grew up with the idea that strength could be found through nature.
Tall and dark-haired with broad shoulders, he looked like a mountaineer. According to Kandinsky, he had a ‘long, unerring stride. In the city he appeared too tall, too confused. I liked to see him in the mountains, in the meadows, in the woods. There he was at home.’
Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky with the cover design for Der Blaue Reiter, Munich, 1911. Photo: Gabriele Münter. Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, München. © DACS 2022
Der Blaue Reiter, 1912: Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc founded the radical movement in 1911. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat
As Kandinsky also wrote, ‘Everything in nature attracted him, but especially animals. There existed a reciprocal connection between the artist and his “models” and this is why Marc could “enter” the life of animals. And it was this life that inspired him.’
On 1 March The Foxes (1913), a rare and iconic painting by Marc, is offered in the 20th/21st Century Evening Sale at Christie’s. With an estimate in the region of £35 million, it is set to more than double the current auction record for the artist. Restituted in 2021 by the city of Dusseldorf to the heirs of the Jewish banker and businessman Kurt Grawi and his wife Else, the work signifies a pivotal moment in the artist’s career following the formation of Der Blaue Reiter in 1911. ‘The year 1913 is a key one for Marc: he is experimenting with a new dynamic visual language, inspired by Orphism and Futurism, which would become his leaping-off point into abstraction,’ says Keith Gill, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in London.
Franz Marc (1880-1916), The Foxes, 1913. Oil on canvas. 34 3/4 x 26 1/4 in (88.3 x 66.4 cm). Restituted by the city of Düsseldorf to the heirs of Kurt & Else Grawi. Sold for £42,654,500 on 1 March 2022 at Christie’s in London
Marc and Kandinsky wanted to break down the boundaries between the cultural arts and science and create an expressionistic art based on gesture, sound and colour. To do this they sought the assistance of the groundbreaking composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had recently shattered the tonal system that had dominated the previous three centuries. Marc also looked to the Futurists, whose witty, provocative and sometimes violent activities had electrified the European avant-garde.
The Blaue Reiter artists announced their radical intentions in suitably declamatory style: ‘We are standing at the threshold of one of the greatest epochs that mankind has ever experienced, the epoch of great spirituality.’ Over the next two years the painters shocked Bavarian society. ‘The times were difficult, but heroic,’ recalled Kandinsky. ‘We painted our pictures. The public spat.’
Galvanised by the brilliant, semi-Cubist images of the French painter Robert Delaunay, Marc’s palette became more vibrant and his backgrounds more fragmented, so that his depictions of animals seemed to melt into form and colour, like a hallucinogenic, ultra-modern Garden of Eden. He once said he wanted to paint images that ‘quivered and flowed with the blood of nature’.
By the time Marc came to paint The Foxes, he firmly believed (like many Modernists) that the world was on the brink of change and that this transformation would result in man becoming one with nature. The Foxes echoes this sentiment.
Franz Marc, whom Wassily Kandinsky described as ‘one of Germany’s finest artistic hopes’, in military uniform, 1915-16. Photo: © Franz Marc Museum, Kochel a. See
‘Marc believed that a painting’s success was partly dependent on the viewer’s involvement,’ says Gill. ‘In The Foxes he is constantly leading the viewer’s eye back to the centre of the work through his use of overlapping planes and intersecting lines.’
The artist hoped that the coming war might bring about a positive cultural shift in Europe and sweep away the old order. In 1914 he volunteered for active service, but months later wrote to his mother: ‘This world conflagration is indeed the most horrible moment in the history of the world. I often think how as a boy I lamented the fact that I had not been born witness to a great historical epoch, and now it is here and it is more frightful than I ever could have dreamed.’
Just before the artist left for the front, Kandinsky came to say farewell, but Marc answered him with an adieu — apparently convinced they would never see each other again.
Fifteen months later, Marc was hit by shrapnel on the fields of Verdun. He died in March 1916 — and took with him a mystic idealism that was never seen in modern art again.