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franz marc and august macke 1909-1914

3 march 2019

The lovely recent show at New York's Neue Galerie, Franz Marc and August Macke 1909-1914, is also one of their most poignant. Just six years in the careers of two painters seems a slender basis for a major exhibition, but in the case of Marc and Macke those six years form nearly their entire life's work. By 1916 both would be dead, part of the incalculable cultural devastation wrought by the first world war.

Editor Vivian Endicott Burnett begins the catalog of the Marc/Macke show with a succinct chronological essay. Isabelle Jansen then demonstrates the debt that the young friends owed to French art (and is particularly good on the question of where and how the Germans could have seen some of the pieces that influenced them – sometimes they knew them from reproductions such as engravings). "Cézanne is their God," said Franz Marc, but they also drew inspiration from Maillol, Daumier, and Delaunay.

Annegret Hoberg contributes a poignant essay on the development of Franz Marc's ideas and mature style. Marc was always drawn to animals, and produced some animal paintings early on that are pared down but naturalistic, reminiscent of the work of Swedish artist Bruno Liljefors. But soon enough he moved to bold colors, stylized designs, and a modernist aesthetic that recalls by turns Fauvism, cubism, and expressionism – but is always unmistakably his own, and never easily allegorized.

Ursula Heiderich's essay "Reality and Form in the Work of August Macke" examines the tension in Macke's art between representational subjects (which Macke never completely abandoned) and the strong influence of Cubism and other abstract styles (especially the color studies of Robert Delaunay). Heiderich shows that Macke was devoted both to drawing from life (and increasingly, using photographs as studies for paintings), and also to emulating older masters from the history of art. I imagine that's the case with many an artist since the early-modern period, but Macke is a particularly vivid example.

Erich Franz studies Macke's ideas about motion in painting (in the sense of how a picture engages the viewer's eye). Here we see Macke as an intellectual, drawing on ideas by thinkers like Eberhard Grisebach and Henri Bergson.

Olaf Peters contributes a study of the reception of both Marc and Macke by German critics from their deaths until the Second World War. Marc was seen as the more important of the two, but also came in for stronger disapprobation, including among Nazi critics (who saw the art of both these young Expressionists as "degenerate").

Marc is better-known than Macke to this day, and has a more distinctive "brand": if you see a highly-stylized, brightly-colored painting with blue horses in it, you are probably looking at a Franz Marc. Even the Prestel catalogue from the 2018-19 exhibition gives Marc first billing and puts a picture by Marc on the front cover, Macke on the back. Yet I came away from both exhibition and catalog feeling I'd learned more about Macke and appreciating his work better. As so often at the Neue Galerie, the most affecting room in the exhibit is the smallest in their gallery, often reserved for works on paper or an artists' last works. Macke's watercolors from 1912-14, some done during a trip to Tunisia and some upon his return, are wonderful, restrained and joyful at the same time. Of course we read them through his impending death; but in a larger sense all art must be read through everybody's impending death. It makes it that much better to be alive.

Barnett, Vivian Endicott, ed. Franz Marc and August Macke 1909-1914. Munich: Prestel, 2018.