At some point in the early 20th century — maybe on a trip to Greece in 1906, maybe during the summer spent in Bavaria in 1908 — Franz Marc fell in love with animals. A few years later, he was dead, struck in the head by a shell fragment during the Battle of Verdun. Marc’s art had undergone a remarkable transformation in ten years between 1906 and 1916, when he died. He had fallen in with the artistic avant-garde around the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM) and then broken off together with his friend Wassily Kandinsky to found the new movement, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). German Expressionism was born.
In the beginning, German Expressionism had a lot to do with animals. We forget that. We forget because we know what happened later. We know about the absolute devastation of World War I. We know that the artists who survived returned to a society in disarray. We know about Berlin in the 1920s and the mixture of innovation, excitement, human degradation, strange beauty, and total ugliness that could be found on its streets and in its houses. We know that the artists broadly grouped together as German Expressionists turned their attentions to documenting and expressing what was going on in the big cities of a German society that had been torn asunder. We know a lot more about what Expressionism finally became than Franz Marc ever got to know, since he was cut down just as the hell was really beginning to gather momentum.
But before all the hell, there were the animals. I don’t know if you have spent time with cows recently. They are massive beasts. The bulk is truly startling when you really get up next to one. Cows, these masses of fleshy stuff, seem almost inert; there is so much of them. In 1913, Marc painted “The World Cow.” Marc chose to paint this cow red. He had a theory about colors and what they mean. He said:
Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the color which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.
That makes some sense in relation to “The World Cow.” When you encounter a cow it is easy to think immediately of raw matter, of the mute brutality of stuff. Marc makes his world cow a symbol of the material principle writ large. The world is a cow at its core — a big, dumb lump of matter. Matter is without meaning, without purpose, without intelligence. It is the “raw material” that must be given form.
All of this would be true of Marc’s world cow, except for the eyes. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a cow? It is a strange thing. You look into their big sad eyes and a real being with real experience is looking back at you. An intelligence emerges (though of what sort you cannot say). Franz Marc looked into the eyes of a cow or two, you can be sure of that. Here’s another thing Franz Marc said:
Is there any more mysterious idea for an artist than the conception of how nature is mirrored in the eyes of an animal? How does a horse see the world, or an eagle, or a doe, or a dog?
The matter isn’t so dumb, after all. There is a perspective in there, inside the gentle eyes of the big red cow. German Expressionists such as Franz Marc were, in the early days, trying to do the good work of exploring that perspective. Marc was looking into our world from the cow’s-eye view and expressing that back to us. And then the world fell apart and everyone died, churned up in the war machine. I wonder what German Expressionism might have been if history had happened otherwise, if Franz Marc had been able to keep looking into the eyes of cows and other beasts. We will never know, of course. All we have left is a possibility, and a big red cow sitting at the middle of the world. • 13 May 2011