In 1911, when this alluring gouache was executed, August Macke was only 24 years old. These formative years were some of the most eventful in the artist’s life, leading to his tragic, untimely death on the battlefield in 1914, aged 27 years old. Through its uniquely delicate and timeless imagery, Macke’s oeuvre is considered today a prime example and one of the most fascinating cases of German expressionism.
The late 1900s and early 1910s were a time of great change and personal development for the young Macke. In 1908 he started his military service; the following year, once discharged, he married the love of his life, Elisabeth Gerhardt, the niece of renowned collector Bernhard Koehler. The pair spent their honeymoon in Paris, where Macke came into contact with the local avant-garde, remaining most impressed with the work of Cezanne and of the Fauves. He would later return to the French capital, but in 1911 decided to settle with Elisabeth in Bonn, the town where he had spent his adolescence. Through his friend Franz Marc, he met the older Wassily Kandinsky.
Three years later, in 1914, Macke would embark on a journey to Tunisia that was to have an enormous impact on his artistic development. Influenced by his companion Paul Klee, his scenes would become filled with the exotic subjects witnessed during his travels, a potpourri of vibrant, bright colours, and local scenes.
However, a group of pictures suggests that the artist’s interest for the exotic and the foreign was one that dated back to a few years before his Tunisian stay. Indianer auf Pferden, for instance, as well as Wandteppich mir orientalischem Liebespaar, both executed in 1911, are testaments to Macke’s keen interest in scenes inspired by faraway lands and mysterious spectacles. For a young man of 24 who had only ever remained in his own continent until then, this was surely the sign of an inspiringly open mind.
In Indianer auf Pferden, for instance, the exotic subject takes centre stage, capturing the imagination with its depiction of distant lands. The allure of this theme manifests itself in a vibrant depiction of an adventurous scene, emphasised by Macke’s use of curvilinear lines; the gentle contours of the mountains in the background enhance a sense of rhythmic movement and fluidity, while the rich palette adds depth and vivacity to the scene.
The present work displays a similar, masterful use of both form and colour, aptly immersing its viewers in an exotic scene from what appears to be a faraway land, conveying a sense of fluidity and movement through its emphasis on curvilinear shapes. The striking blues and reds, highlighted with delicate silver paint, adorn a mesmerizing vision in which a curvilinear boat, carrying three women, is being pushed against the waves by an intent rower, gazing downwards towards a sea populated by sinister creatures. The tenderness of the portrayal of the girls is juxtaposed with the firm muscularity of the male figure, bringing to the fore an intriguing contrast perhaps only paralleled by the stark, vibrant contrast between the primary tones of red and blue. The same themes will be re-explored by the artist in a different medium, in the glass painting of the same subject for which the present work is a study. Capturing the essence of Macke’s early interest in mysterious and adventurous scenes, it is without a doubt that in Nackte Mädchen in der Barke, we are witnessing Macke’s artistic finesse is at its finest.