Franz Marc: utopian hopes for art and the Great War

On 2 March 1916, German artist Franz Marc wrote to his wife Maria from the front line of the infamous World War One battlefield at Verdun:

For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine … Stay calm and don’t worry: I will come back to you – the war will end this year.  I must stop; the transport of the wounded, which will take this letter along, is leaving. Stay well and calm as I do.1

Two days later Marc wrote again to Maria, concluding on a reassuring note:

Don’t worry, I will come through, and I’m also fine as far as my health goes.  I feel well and watch myself.2

That afternoon at 4pm Marc was killed by shrapnel from a shell blast. He was 36.
Marc’s death in battle does not define his life or art in the way that tragic deaths can do:  indeed, it may seem to have little bearing on these as the art and the war seem to occupy entirely disparate universes.  Yet I believe the Great War has a significance for Marc’s art that has been too easily overlooked in the now exceptionally well documented career of this major painter of the early Modernist era (a three volume catalogue of the artist’s entire oeuvre:  Franz Marc: the complete works, was published in 2004).  This piece is dedicated to exploring that connection between Marc’s art and his responses to the war.

Franz Marc (b. 1880) is reputed to be the best loved of the German Expressionists.3 While expressionist art (particularly when German) is usually thought of as edgy and psychologically uneasy, Marc’s art is typically different:  an art of sensuality, joy and bucolic delight.  In particular, Marc is famous for boldly coloured paintings of curvaceous horses in richly expressionist  reds, yellows, blues and mauves, situated in flowing and abstracted landscapes. An example, much reproduced, is Large Red Horses (1911).

Franz Marc, Large Red Horses, 1911, oil on canvas

From the beginning of his career as an artist Marc was drawn to painting animals.  Early on these were naturalistic, though more impressionist in colour and style than realist.  Horses and dogs featured.  Marc’s development as an artist received a major boost from his acquaintance with recent development in European art:  his experience of seeing an exhibition of the highly coloured and expressionist art of Dutchman Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 90) and his familiarity with the new Cubist art – fractured and semi abstract – from Paris.  Marc’s development also benefited from his ongoing association with avant garde painter friends Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944 ) and August Macke (1887 – 1914).   As a result of these productive influences and associations Marc took comparatively little time to attain his mature style exemplified by Large Red Horses.

A painting by Marc from this period was included in the European Masters show at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria in 2010. Dog Lying in the Snow (1912) is a charming depiction of the artist’s own dog, Rossi.  It is a study in relaxed calm, all the more so because of its domestic and personal subject. The colours of Dog Lying in the Snow are high keyed and pure – the snow is white, the dog is yellow, and the shadows are green.  Rossi is seen close up at eye level, which gives the painting an intimate quality. The curved and angular lines show Cubist influences. Although Rossi is centred, the work is visually dynamic, and the generalised and stylised qualities of the painting incorporate elements that are recognisably abstract.


Franz Marc, Dog Lying in the Snow, 1912, oil on canvas

 These abstract tendencies make an essential contribution to the spiritual quality that Marc claimed for his art. Through a process of simplification and generalisation, Marc draws attention away from the individual, the particular, and the material things of the world. The artist advocates the universal and seeks to give expression to the essence of things. Marc’s dog becomes a pleasing arrangement of shapes, colours and form:  a metaphor for the artist’s hopes for a better and more spiritually attuned world. Complementing the abstract elements, the central placement and colouring of the image are like a Byzantine icon. We sense the innocence and emotional weight of the subject, and it allows us to feel content and relaxed.

Large Red Horses and Dog Lying in the Snow exemplify how Marc was seeking a new kind of art that would constitute a new era in European culture and society. Animal imagery was essential to Marc’s spiritual quest because he saw man as ‘ugly’, while animals, he said, were ‘more beautiful, purer’.4 Marc associated animals with a spiritual and transient realm. They were untainted by the everyday concerns and conditions – the complexities, contradictions, and compromises – of human life.

Marc’s idealist outlook is expressed in a publication from 1912 titled Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (The Blue Rider Almanac) co-authored with Kandinsky. Conjuring up a bold sense of historical destiny, and adopting a prophetic tone not unlike that of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848, it begins:

Today art is moving in a direction our fathers would never ever have dreamed.  We stand before the new pictures as in a dream and we hear the apocalyptic horsemen in the air.  There is an artistic tension all over Europe.  Everywhere new artists are greeting each other ….5

On the eve of war two years later, in the forward to the planned second volume, the claim is reiterated:

The world is giving birth to a new time: there is only one question: has the time come to separate ourselves from the old world?6

This ‘new time’ refers to not only the new art – a Modernist art – but a new order or society.  Marc imagined that the war itself would be the catalyst for change.  He wrote:  (the war) ‘will not set humanity back; it will bring about the necessary purgation of Europe.’7 This is crusading and messianic language.  Yet, like many at that time all over Europe, Marc saw the impending war as likely to be a revitalising force.8 In the lead up to mobilisation, no one could know what the war would be like, or that it would be anything like as long and destructive as it turned out to be.

How the coming war – probably what Marc is referring to as ‘the apocalyptic horsemen’ – would bring about the desired change he did not explain.  For Marc it was a leap of faith that the war would allow the new art to prosper and that the new art would be central to the new society. This art would seek to give expression to the purity, spirituality, and universality with which Marc identified the modern. It would not be an art conceived in specific, concrete and ‘materialist’ terms.

Marc’s ambitious and utopian aims for art were of the zeitgeist,  for  many of the leading avant-garde artists of Europe at this time, and in the period immediately after the war,  were pursuing an abstract or semi abstract style that identified an incipient Modernism with the prophesized new society, one  more spiritual and transcendent than the old. In England Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957) and David Bomberg (1890 – 1957) were developing an abstract pictorial language in painting; in Italy the painting of the  Futurists promulgated fascist- leaning beliefs in the machine, speed and war; and in Russia, the Constructivists and Supremacists were pursuing various expressions of an abstraction by turns utopian (sometimes with political content) and mystical. The universalising and abstract spirit of modernity also operated in avant-garde architecture – as in the minimalist work of Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965) and in Germany’s interwar Bauhaus design programme.

But for all the innovation of the avant-garde, a quest for the spiritual in art was not an invention of artists like Marc, Kandinsky, or the Russian Supremacists.9 The spiritual could be as much a feature of nineteenth century romantic art as it was characteristic of the new art. Marc’s own work had strong links to German romanticism in particular: a tradition by turns idealistic and transcendent, theatrical and operatic. Among those closely identified with this romantic heritage was the painter of transcendent landscape, Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840), the Idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), and the anti humanist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), for whom Marc professed a strong affinity.10

In the last couple of years before the outbreak of war Marc’s art rapidly evolved:  the animal motif diminished and was increasingly subsumed in fractured, swirling, abstracted and boldly coloured shapes.  A painting from this phase, The Fate of the Animals (1913), is featured – discussed and reproduced – in Robert Hughes’ seminal work of Modernist art, The Shock of the New: Art and the century of change (1988).

In this iconic painting the animals – deer and horses – are of a more diminutive size than they had previously been. They do not convey calm or joy, but are in contorted poses and  seem overwhelmed by a near abstract composition of exploding shards of shrill and contrasting colour,  that look like a shell explosion.  A brownish film over a section of the painting (actually fire damage) is nonetheless suggestive of blood (representing, in retrospect, the artist’s own death in battle).  For Hughes, the painting portended the cataclysm of war to come: ‘This tragic vision of matter – the earth and its plants no less than the forms of animals – sundered and broken by implacable shafts of energy now seems truly prophetic …’ 11


Franz Marc, The Fate of the Animals, 1913, oil on canvas


By the outbreak of war in August 1914 the animals had disappeared from Marc’s art. Colour and form alone – the abstract – were relied upon to evoke the spiritual.12  In his letters to Maria from the front the artist talked of his future plans to entrench pure abstraction in his art:  (I will) ‘search for a pure expression outside of any world view.  Is there such a thing? Can it ever be found in its purity in painting? You are right, it has been found in music …’13  These comments, and the analogy with music, provide an emerging rationale for Modernist abstraction, one which Kandinsky (usually credited with being the first artist to paint an abstract painting) had already started on before the war.  Had Marc lived, we can imagine he would have continued along a path of seeking the mystical and the pure in the new kind of abstract art that he was helping to pioneer.

At the commencement of hostilities Marc was conscripted to the German army and was sent to the front.  He served as a cavalryman, perhaps in recognition of his extensive experience with horses. From the outset he was exposed to the grim horror of the battlefield.  In letters to Maria, Marc described his witnessing ‘terrible battles’ and a ‘horrible war’.  There is a particularly awful moment when Marc feels nothing but bitter sadness for the death in battle of his closest friend, artist August Macke.  Yet mostly Marc’s response to the war as conveyed to Maria is of a different kind:  a month into hostilities he writes:

There is something impressive and mystical about the artillery battles… I still do not think differently about the war.  It simply seems to me feeble and lifeless to consider it vulgar and dumb. I dream of a new Europe, I … see in this war the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals; it will purify Europe, and make it ready… Europe is doing the same things to her body France did to hers during the Revolution.

Somehow the war would have a transformative quality that would be good for the spirit:

….the war is not turning me into a realist – on the contrary: I feel so strongly the meaning which hovers behind the battles, behind every bullet, so that the realism, the materialism disappears completely.  Battles, wounds, motions, all appear so mystical, unreal….14

As delusional as these views seem, Marc was not alone in viewing the war as strange and surreal. Poets and writers on both sides could depict it in this way.  Recently I was in London and saw the mural sized The Menin Road, by the English surrealist Paul Nash, at the Imperial War Museum. This painting gives expression to the weird and ‘mystical’ like quality of the devastated trench and battlefield landscape, pulverised as it was by repeated artillery barrages of mass scale. As a modern painter, Nash would likely have endorsed Marc’s view, expressed in a letter to Maria, that ‘It is unbelievable that there were times in which one represented the war by painting campfires, burning villages, speeding horsemen, falling horses, and patrolling riders etc.’15 A surreal response to the war has the ring of modernity about it (this war was like no other).

Nor were Marc’s views that the war would ‘purify’ society entirely unusual at the time. It was commonly asserted, on both sides, that war was manly and would revitalise society, with values like courage, duty and patriotism.16 For example, the Australian Prime Minister during the war, Billy Hughes, talked of its ‘purging’ qualities.  Australia, said Hughes, was being saved

… from moral and physical degeneration and decay, by which we were slipping down with increasing velocity into the very abyss of degeneration.  (We) were becoming flabby, and were in danger of losing the ancient qualities which made the race.  The war has purged us and is still purging us like the glorious beams of the sun.17

But while Hughes and Marc both talk of revitalisation, the emphasis of each differs: Australia’s Prime Minister emphasises physical properties of the human body and the sun, while Marc puts a characteristically teutonic emphasis on the immaterial and the transcendent.

But though Marc believed the war could be good for Europe’s soul he provides us with no clues as to how this would translate into practical effect. To the extent that Marc placed art ‘above’ society and politics (human experience), these questions were perhaps not ones for which Marc required answers. Just as Marc put Modernist art on a romantic pedestal – its historic mission both abstract and transcendent – so too did he idealise the war as the violent agent of change. Hence his response to the war that it could be simultaneously ‘horrific’ and ‘spiritual’. While Marc saw the war as a gruesome process he felt it necessary for the realisation of the new society in which a new art could give expression to a mystical oneness with nature.

As the war progressed, Marc’s correspondence with Maria suggests that his response shifts subtly to one that hints at signs of resignation.  A kind of weariness is evident when, in April 1915, he writes that ‘the lack of purity (of nature) has become clear to me’, though this was also a rationale for the artist’s declared commitment to abandon animal imagery in favour of abstraction. 18

Marc’s letters to  Maria reveal a growing acceptance of and even identification with death from this time. Death  comes to be seen as a welcome release – a state of ‘Being’, as he calls it.19  Marc writes: ‘Whoever strives for purity and knowledge, to him death always comes as a saviour.’20  And again, ‘There is only one blessing and redemption:  death.’ Weariness and resignation, but also the commitment of the artist to a transcendent outlook, is conveyed in the lines, ‘Life doesn’t touch me at all: it seems no longer real or present to me, a mere formalistic existence …’ 21 and, less than two weeks before he died in battle, ‘the sudden death caused by an enemy bullet’ is ‘no more senseless’ than other ways of dying, for ‘the war, too, is part of nature’.22

Perhaps this seeming embrace of death was a psychological defence, in circumstances  where experience had become too terrible to fit in with the artist’s framework of meaning and purpose that he ascribed to the war. While Marc was still seeking to match his inner sense of being to the great theatre of the battlefield, the mystical possibilities of the conflict were increasingly blurred by the piling up of death and destruction with no quick end to the war in sight. It seems reasonable to speculate that Marc’s millennial aspirations for the war were receding.

In his quest to emphasize the modern and innovative in his art, and draw a line between what he was aspiring to do and the past, Marc was not well placed to recognize the orthodox, and even reactionary aspects to his romantic and utopian outlook.  The war would change Europe forever, but not in ways that Marc might have hoped for (particularly for his own country). While Marc and Kandinsky railed against a materialism they dismissed as ‘nineteenth  century’, the war that they saw as an agent of modernity was also a product of nineteenth-century nationalism, materialism and greed. Further, the war can be construed as a power struggle between competing empire states (Germany seeking to join the club) – a war of imperialism that socialists and revolutionaries, like the Bolsheviks in Russia, claimed it to be.

In practice, Marc’s support for Germany’s war effort endorsed the militaristic status quo in Germany and therefore gave support to an essential feature of the ‘corrupt’ society that he ironically hoped the war could eradicate.23  War and social structure cannot be entirely separated from one another, for societies prosecute wars (while it is those who hold power who are the ones who decide to go to war). Germany’s war and its authoritarian political and social structures, and intellectual traditions, were intertwined (Australia’s commitment to the war was similarly an expression of the ways in which Empire and social structure were intertwined).

How do Marc’s views about the war impact on our response to his art?  Our  appreciation of the utopian underpinnings to Marc’s art – whether idealist representations of animals or premonitions of war – is heightened.  We are made more aware of how Marc’s art is linked in mood and content to European avant -garde art at this time, just as it is embedded in the tradition of German romanticism.

Viewed in this light, Marc’s iconic painting The Fate of the Animals – a synthesis of the artist’s aims for his art and his worldly views – appears to have more ambiguous  meanings than are suggested when taken on face value. While clearly prophetic of the catastrophe to come, the painting can also be viewed as a dynamic expression of Marc’s millennial hopes for the future; not only are the exploding shards representative of the destruction of war, they also signify the coming ‘new time’.  As abstract pictorial language the shards embody the emergent Modernism. They declare that the earlier figurative imagery of idealised animals is giving way to a muscular, assertive and ‘pure’ abstraction.

The Fate of the Animals, therefore, represents the ‘shock of the new’ in more ways than one. The painting proclaims the dissolution of materiality and the emphasising of elemental forces – a kind of cosmic reconstruction that will arise from the ashes of war.

The oppositions of destruction, chaos, utopian thinking, a notion of progress and the eternal are all mixed up together:  The Fate of the Animals is a unified expression of these oppositions. It is a work which positions the artist at the confluence of the old world and the new – which World War One itself embodied.

  1. Marc to Maria, 2 March 1916, Letters from the war: Franz Marc, new edition by Klaus Lankheit and Uwe Steffen,  American University Studies, vol. 16, p.113.
  2. Marc to Maria, 4 March 1916, Letters from the war, p.113.
  3. In Germany Marc’s paintings set price records at auction houses, and recent museum polls suggest that for Germans he is the most popular of all German artists.
  4. Marc to Maria, Letters from the war, 12 April 1915, p.46.
  5. Documents of 20th century Art:  DerBlaue Reiter Almanac, edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, 1912, Documentary edition by Klaus Lankheit, Thames and Hudson, London, 1974, p.69.
  6. The Blue Rider Almanac, pg259.
  7. Quoted in Franz Marc, horses, Christian von Holst (editor), Hatje Cantz Publishers, (undated), 15 December 1914, p.28.
  8. Annette Becker, The Visual Arts, in A Companion to World War I, edited by John Horne, Wiley—Blackwell, 2010.  Becker writes: “In August 1914, the majority of avant-garde artists welcomed the declaration of war with a certain excitement.” p. 339.
  9. The thesis of a romantic trajectory independent of stylistic innovation was the subject of Robert Rosenblum’s ground breaking book, Modern Painting and theNorthern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (1975).  This trajectory from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century can be seen to culminate in the abstract painting – of epic proportions – of post -World War Two American Abstract Expressionist artists Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956), Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) and Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970). The romantic trajectory, applied to German art, is comprehensively surveyed in Keith Harley (ed), The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790 – 1990, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994.
  10. Ultimately, German romanticism found its most corrupted and extreme expression in Nazism, which had a notion of “purity” that ironically extended to banning and repressing the kind of modern art in which Marc and his colleagues believed.
  11. Hughes, The Shock of the New, p. 68
  12. Marc wrote: “I can in no other way overcome my imperfections and the imperfections of life than by translating the meaning of my existence into the spiritual, into that which is independent of the mortal body, that is, the abstract.”  Quoted in Franz Marc Horses, p34.
  13. Marc to Maria, Letters from the war, 12 April 1915, p.46.
  14. Marc to Maria, Letters from the war, 12 September 1914, p.4.  Later, these sentiments on the ‘mystical’ character of the battlefield, would appear in an article Marc wrote from the front  for a Berlin newspaper:  Im Fegefever des Krieges (In the Purgatory of War), published in the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung, 15 December 1914.
  15. Marc to Maria, Letters from the war, 12 September 1914, p.4
  16. Both sides claimed God supported their cause.  Priests might lament the slaughter while supporting the war itself.  See for example, Patrick Porter, “The Sacred Service: Australian chaplains and the Great War”, in War and Society, School of History, University of New South Wales, No 2, Vol. 20, October 2002.
  17. Quoted in Jeff Sparrow, Killing: Misadventures in Violence, Melbourne University Press, 2009, p262. Sparrow’s book is an investigation into the psychology of killing, with a focus on Australia’s war experience.
  18. Marc to Maria, Letters from the war, 12 April 1915, p.46.
  19. This point is made in Franz Marc, horses, pgs 178 – 179.
  20. Quoted in Rosenthal, Franz Marc, pg 41.
  21. Marc to Maria. Letters from the war, 21 July 1915, p.59 – 60.
  22. Marc to Maria, Letters from the war, 22 February 1916, p.109.
  23. In Killing, Sparrow has sought to account for such contradictions in the Australian context.  In his investigation of militarist thinking in Australia during World War One Sparrow offers the view that militarism emanates from how a society functions and is organized.  He writes, ‘Militarism was structurally conservative (my italics), not simply because it honoured tradition and obedience and traditional values.’ p 255.

Mark Dober

Dr Mark Dober has a PhD in Fine Art (Painting) from Monash University and is a practising artist. He lives in Melbourne.

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  1. This is a good and informative overview of Marc’s work and his changing views of WWI. (I share an interest in Marc and have recently done research on significant connections between Rilke’s animal poetry and Marc’s vision of animals.) I’m not sure how much, however, WWI can alter our understanding of Marc’s paintings. Certainly in the case of “The Fate of the Animals” there is, as you state (though this painting is open to different interpretations), some connection to the war; as you would know, Marc himself, on receiving a postcard image of this painting during WWI, was shocked and interpreted the painting as a premonition of the war and as exemplifying the futural orientation of his creative process (in contrast to a recollective process). However, with respect to other paintings, drawing a connection to the subsequent war is more difficult and complex (you allude to certain connections but these would really require further elaboration and justification). I think Marc came to realise that his original attitude to the war was deluded. He had mistaken his sense of a need for cultural revolution (a view shared by major artists and thinkers from the time of Nietzsche on) with the reality of war; his art, I think, offered a great deal towards a genuine cultural renewal but his early attitudes to the war were misguided. In other words, I think that Marc’s art can be appreciated independently of his attitudes to war (especially as the vast majority of his work predates the war).

    That said, Rilke also drew certain connections between the war and modern art; he regarded the dissolution of the object in cubism and in the development of abstraction as connected to the destruction of the war (and to the historical loss of an earlier and more meaningful relationship to things). Such views, however, raise broader questions concerning historical methodology (and divergent philosophies of history) and the connections between culture and politics.

  2. I am working on a novel set in 1920s Libya and the Italian colonisation of Libya, the brutality of which is little known about. I am trying to come to terms with the glorification of war, working on the disquieting views of Italian fascist/Mussolini. My first degree was in Fine Art and I find I am returning to Art History and the new imagery of the WW1 period. Your article is fascinating. The novel is a kind of sequel/prequel to my first novel also set in LIbya in the 1970s: Chameleon in my garden.The word for chameleon in Arabic derives from a root meaning for ‘bellicose.’ I find all these connections surprising and engaging. Thank you for the article.

  3. Thank you compiling this illustrated review of Pisarro and his approach and love of painting and art in general. I particularly appreciated his self-critique and temerity in looking back on his pieces. Interesting, too, his strong recommendation to use only primary colors and avoid the ochres and umbers. How wonderful to have had him as a teacher and mentor.

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