It’s hard not to leave “Franz Marc and August Macke: 1909-1914,” an alternately thrilling and dizzying exhibition on the artistic friendship of two important German painters, saddened by the tragic end of both men’s careers.
On a trip to a gallery in 1910, Macke, who was impressed by Marc’s confident lithographs of animals, asked for the artist’s address and immediately went to visit. The two men subsequently traveled and showed together. With the Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky, they also helped found the Blue Rider, a loose collective of Munich painters whose impatience with the stuffiness of realistic work helped open the path to German Expressionism, with its bold, tactical exaggeration, and, later, to abstraction.
The Little Blue Horses by Franz Marc
Established in 1911, the group took its name from an almanac of essays and reproductions edited by Marc and Kandinsky and paid for by the wealthy collector Bernhard Koehler, the uncle of Macke’s wife. But World War I brought this all to an end: Macke was killed at 27 in combat in 1914; Marc died on the battlefield just after his 36th birthday, in 1916.
Marc was born in Munich in 1880. His father, Wilhelm, came from a family of Jews who had converted to Roman Catholicism. They distanced themselves when Wilhelm married a Calvinist and converted in turn. The younger Marc, who thought of being either a minister or a philologist before taking up painting, adopted an approach to art that was intellectually driven and, until he met Macke, fairly lonely.
Macke’s family was well off, from the Rhineland, where he was born in 1887; as an aspiring young artist, he traveled extensively. Both men visited Paris several times and were powerfully impressed by Gauguin and Cézanne.
Whatever Marc might have done if he had had more time, he did leave a few fully realized pieces, of which “The Yellow Cow” (1911) — on view here alongside “Fighting Cows,” “Ape Frieze” and “Weasels Playing” — is the best known. That painting’s central figure, a muscular cow with a blue spot on its belly, inhabits a landscape that is nearly as alive as it is. Green boulders and orange fields leap and play into blue mountains under a buttery night sky. The moonlit cow isn’t quite real, but it’s not definitively unreal, either; it’s simply tinted to accent the chaos of pure color that underlies perception.
Although the two 1909 paintings of Marc’s that open the exhibition — “Siberian Sheepdogs,” a profile of two dogs almost as white as the snow beneath them, and “Small Study of Stones,” in which icy blue boulders hunch across the canvas like sheep — look more conventional, they already foreshadow the artist’s use of animals that are only half distinct from their backgrounds to portray a seamless, self-contained dream world.
Macke, in contrast, tried everything. In his “White Jug With Flowers and Fruits,” a 1910 still life set in front of an olive green wall, he heightens the colors to burn the image into your eyes from across the room. Surfaces look stickier and more ambiguous, though, in the shadowy 1909 “Portrait With Apples,” and there’s the suggestion of self-consciousness in the pose of its subject, Macke’s wife, Elisabeth. In “Little Walter’s Toys,” his son’s wooden dolls on a table are earnestly theatrical; a row of geraniums in “Geraniums Before Blue Mountain” are a trippy homage to van Gogh.
But the piece of Macke’s that I can’t stop thinking about, the one that is reason enough for a subway ride to the Neue, is his 1910 “Woman Playing the Lute.” A simple, classically shaped white vase, with pale pink shadows and five stylized orange tulips springing from it, sits on a table that is covered in a dark blue cloth. Flowers and vase alike are outlined in a thick ash gray. Behind the vase, a rosy-cheeked woman in peasant dress looks down in concentration as she strums. The saturated color and the flat, stylized drawing of the vase, lute and woman, which sit tightly on top of one another, recall a postage stamp on a love letter. It’s a strange, unforgettable image.
Did Macke mean to suggest that using a vase or a guitar as a symbol for a woman does a disservice to them both? Is the work supposed to allude to the sublimated power of sex in art and music? Or is the picture simply an expression of giddy allegiance to the style of visual amplification that Macke might have expanded even further had he lived?
In the year or two before they were called up, the painters were both tremendously productive. In Marc’s “Deer in the Forest II” (1914), a single shaft of yellow light drops heavily into a blue-green forest pregnant with danger. Macke’s “Four Girls” (1913), in which he treats well-dressed young women as exotic flowers growing out of lush foliage, is unusually static, as if in impotent protest at the scene’s fragility. Both men were drafted when hostilities started and were buried in France: Marc in Gussainville, and Macke in a mass grave at Souain.
Credits: This article originally appeared in 2018 in The New York Times.