‘What does the deer have in common with the world we see? Does it make any reasonable or even artistic sense to paint the deer as it appears on our retina, or in the manner of the Cubists because we feel the world to be cubistic? Who says the deer feels the world to be cubistic? - it feels it as a deer, and thus the landscape must also be ‘deer’ … I could paint a picture called “The Deer”. Pisanello has just done that. But I may also want to paint “The Deer Feels”. How infinitely more refined a sensitivity must a painter have to paint that!’ (F. Marc, ‘How does a Horse See the World?’, 1911, quoted in K. Lankheit, ed., Franz Marc: Schriften, Cologne, 1978, p. 99).
Gemsen (Chamois) is a dramatic and highly lyrical composition executed by Franz Marc in 1911. With its elegant and simplified fusion of naturalistic form, moderately abstracted arabesque lines and symbolic colour harmony, the painting is one of Marc’s first truly mature compositions. Representing a coming together of his spiritual and formal ideas into one integrated language of form, it is one of the most ambitious and finely resolved of these early mature pieces, and a work in which Marc’s unique and holistic vision of the world of nature was first successfully articulated.
After the artist’s death on the Western Front in 1916, Marc’s widow and organizer of his estate described this work as follows: ‘In front of a stormy sky lightly tinged from purple to rusty red, draped with small clouds, blue crags with different shading (ultramarine) in the foreground, two green chamois are jumping across blue rocks. The rhythm of their movements is accentuated by two coloured semicircles (tree-trunks), diagonally cutting through the whole picture. In colours complimentary to Blue against Green (orange and reddish brown)’ (M. Marc, ‘Notes on Gemsen’, quoted in A. Hoberg & I. Jansen, Franz Marc, The Complete Works, vol. 2, London, 2004, p. 167). Maria Marc’s emphasis in these notes on the mood of the landscape and the careful co-ordination of simple colour in the painting reflects Marc’s paramount interest at this time in using these elements towards the expression of what he called the ‘animalisation’ of art. The ‘animalisation’ of art was Marc’s aim of rendering a pictorial vision of the world as it might be seen from within - through the feeling and the senses of the living, sentient beings (animals and man) who inhabited it. Gemsen, with its two chamois or mountain goats shown elegantly springing against an undulating blue-mountain background and through an aperture formed by the curve of two trees, is a deceptively simple and in fact stunningly composed painting that both asserts and encapsulates this visionary aim.
‘I am seeking a feeling for the organic rhythm in all things’, Marc had written in 1910, ‘a pantheistic empathy into the shaking and flowing of the blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in the air. I see no happier means to the “animalisation of art”, as I would like to call it, than the animal picture. Therefore I treat it accordingly’ (Marc, ‘Letter to Reinhard Piper’, 20 April 1910, quoted in G. Meißner, ed., Franz Marc, Briefe, Schriften und Aufzeichnungen, Leipzig, 1980, p. 30).
Gemsen is the final working of a series of studies on the subject (see also Sketchbook XXI, 1911 and XXIV 1911/12, for example) that Marc made in an attempt to create a complete and unified composition between a landscape of mountains and the animals living in it. Paring down the elements of picture-making to a simple language of form and colour - like recent work by French modernists such as Matisse and Delaunay, but also like the ancient Minoan wall-paintings of animals then being unearthed in Knossos - Marc has created a vision of the world as a single, harmoniously integrated entity. The curve of the mountain-goats’ bodies as they spring seems to echo the landscape of the mountains and also to be reflected in the curve of the two trees between which they jump. Their springing into action is itself shown as a reaction to the change in weather, signified by contrasting colours and simple, direct, straight lines indicative of an oncoming storm. In this way - through an almost elemental use of contrasting form and colour - the mood and action of the animals is formally connected to the landscape and the weather in a way that suggests an holistic view of animals, landscape and cosmos as one, single, harmoniously integrated and interdependent whole. The painting reflects in this way Marc’s central aim of attempting to expose in his work the ‘magic, sympathetic bond between the earth and the organic forms it has engendered, earth and object are blended together…’ (F. Marc, ‘Geistige Güter’, in Der Blaue Reiter, 1965, p. 21) and in so doing to fulfil his aim of creating pictures that were ‘symbols for their own time, symbols that will take their place on the altars of a future spiritual religion’ (F. Marc, Almanach Der Blaue Reiter, Munich, 1912, p. 6)
Marc’s idealism in rendering such an holistic and spiritualized vision of the world around him was but a part of a wider mission he felt called upon to pursue in his art in the hope of suggesting and pointing the way to a new age of the spirit. For Marc, this new age of the spirit was to be one that he hoped would one day countermand and overtake the current age of materialism that he then found himself in and which, like many people in the years before the First World War, he believed was promoting conflict, division and unhappiness in the world. ‘We are today experiencing one of the most important moments in the history of civilization,’ Marc wrote at the beginning of 1911. ‘All the ancient culture we still trail along with us (religion, monarchism, aristocracy, privileges [including purely intellectual ones], humanism etc.) is a “present which already belongs to the past”. No one can yet say what sort of new culture we are heading towards, because we ourselves are caught in the middle of change; for the future age, in which all concepts and laws will be given new birth, we modern painters are hard at work to create a “new-born” art. This must be pure and fearless enough to admit “every possibility” the new age will offer’ (Marc, 21 Jan 1911, quoted in S. Partsch, Franz Marc, Cologne, 1991, p. 39).