Oil on canvas, 1911, by Franz Marc (1880 – 1916)
There is an entire gallery at the Fogg Museum which is designated to “Art in Germany between the Wars” and even though Marc’s Grazing Horses IV predates either war, his story and legacy is still very much tied up with the politics and tragedy of it. It’s in fact a tale of two extremes: Marc, serving as a cavalryman in WWI, was considered too important to the artistic heritage of the country to be left in the trenches when warfare began to intensify and his evacuation from the front lines was ordered, only for him to be killed by a mortar shell at the Battle of Verdun before he could retreat. One could argue endlessly about why an artist’s life should be deemed more esteemed than anyone else’s, but perhaps the German high command had him in their sights for a different military deployment in keeping with his skills: camouflage production, map making or propaganda art? The point is, he was clearly valued. Skip forward twenty years to 1936 and Marc, despite dying on the battle field for his country, was condemned by the Nazis as a entarteter kunstler (a degenerate artist) and all his work was stripped from exhibition across Germany. In fact, this explains how the Fogg came by many of these German paintings: they were snapped up by shrewd American dealers when the Nazis deemed them valueless and shipped over to the States. It just goes to demonstrate how a toxic political ideology can disrupt and corrupt everything in its grasp: sacrifice is eviscerated; history is rewritten; talent is nullified until nothing is sacred.
When you see Grazing Horses IV in the gallery you are quite simply stunned by how it pulses and radiates, seeming almost to hover off the wall as opposed to hang on it. It has, simply put, an intense energy around it. There are moments in viewing fine art when you are overcome with a deeply discomforting emotional response, which appears to derive from some sort of primal drive, and I am not sure whether it was because I read of the tragic circumstances of Marc’s death before I saw the painting and was then stunned with an awareness of the visceral waste which warfare rends to both life and the artistic depths contained therein, or whether it was the tight, wrought, deeply unresolved tension which somehow seems to be held in the almost gnarled relationship between the three horses, I cannot for sure say. There is a clear pyramidal element to their composition which seems to yearn for a calm even hierarchical dissolution to their disparate grouping and yet their pairing and their contextual arrangement within nature, delineated by the use of primary colours, denies all possibility of denouement or catharsis. We are used to associating equine activity with discipline, restraint, obedience and grace, but instead Marc gives us disarray, wilfulness, wildness and autonomy. And it’s not just that the horses have been set free to roam that establishes the displeasure we feel, wrested as they have been beyond our human control, or that it’s inconceivable to imagine wild horses, it’s that their taut muscular definition, when depicted in such dynamic red, conjures a nervous, frantic earthly orientation which is as much a psychological affront to our sensibilities as it is a seeming physical anomaly.
In consort with his friend, Kandinsky, Marc was one of the German Expressionists who desired most of all to express spiritual truths through symbolic uses of colour. Hence there is a kind of latent primitivism in the use of red to associate it with violence and terrestrial materiality. However, it additionally establishes the binary between agitation and grace because the horses are also, arguably, arranged as if they were captured in movement, in flight, in dance, and the comparison to Matisse’s The Dance which Marc was particularly fond of (he had reproduced it in his influential art magazine, Der Blaue Reiter, in 1910), is apparent. The white on their faces denotes purity and the blue suggests spirituality and together they add attendant notes of relief so you ultimately find yourself caught in a liminal predicament when you contemplate what amounts to a savage elegance of tone, an oxymoron which feeds into our sense of startled wonder when we first encounter it. The juxtaposition of colour though is never base or flat; in this regard, like the later work of Mark Rothko, a levitating energy and a pulsating spectrum is conjured from what might ordinarily just be regarded as a rather decorative ‘landscape with horses’ in the hands of a lesser artist. Perhaps it was this ability to so incite our raw emotions through disarray as opposed to control which the Nazis deemed so degenerate?
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.