Born in 1880 and son of a landscape painter, Franz Marc trained at the Fine Arts Academy in Munich where, under the cover of academism and formality, he would lay the technical foundations on which to develop his own extraordinary artistic progression. It is a first trip to Paris in 1903 that would trigger a great hyphenation with his formal style and engender the explorations of the following years. From there on Marc would become an artistic polyglot, drawing on impressionism, fauvism, cubism, futurism and orphism to create his own language and become one of the leading figures of German Expressionism. Franz Marc thus positions himself as integral part of the Darwinian evolution of an art which echoes the psychological, philosophical, sociological and cultural concerns of modernity.
Looking at Deer in the Forest I, one cannot but recognise a very representative example not only of Marc’s influences but also and most importantly of the culmination of his own formal language. First and foremost the imprint of the father figures of Van Gogh, of Gauguin and of the Fauvists – namely Matisse – encountered in Marc’s Parisian wanderings are here undeniable. Similarly to Matisse and Derain, themselves inspired on one side by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne and by Signac and Seurat on the other (fig.1), Marc has here left the three-dimensional world to propose his own vision of nature expressed through unnaturalistic colour planes and vibrant brushstrokes. Marc however takes colour further and charges it with symbolic meaning, emotional values and resonances. In a letter to fellow artist August Macke in 1910 he writes “Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two.” The importance of colour and its internal resonances are concepts Marc shares with Russian Artist Wassily Kandinsky who wrote at that time his theoretical treaty On the Spiritual in Art in which he develops his theory of colour and abstraction.
With spirituality as one of their hobbyhorse, both artists founded in 1911 – the year Deer in the Forest I was painted – the journal and eponym group “Der Blaue Reiter” (fig.2) with other illustrious contributors such as Paul Klee and August Macke. True to the metaphysical qualities of Marc and Kandinsky’s practices the genesis of the group’s name remains somewhat obscure. The horse is of course a leitmotiv for Marc and the rider a fascinating figure for Kandinsky while the colour blue holds for both a special importance and mystical significance. One can also draw here a parallel with an archaic figure of Christian revelation as hinted at by Marc who wrote in a prospectus for Der Blaue Reiter almanac that “one stands before the new works as in a dream, and hears the horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Be it as it may, the group shared an interest in an abstraction of forms, vibrant colours, and a concern with the spirituality and moral values of the inner self, of the Ego, rather than the material(istic) world.
Franz Marc focalised those concerns towards his depiction of nature and the animal kingdom. In his wondrous bestiary, Marc takes us on an inner emotional journey, playing with colours as the pianist would play his keys. More than pleasing the eye, the painter aimed at making the soul vibrate, at raising his art to a higher spiritual plane. On this journey, Marc wanted to overcome the conflict between world and spirit through the vessel of a return towards nature. There is a fundamental element of primitivism here, as Marc yearns a return to a primal connection and reconciliation with the natural world. Marc saw in animals a purity, something almost holy that he thought humans had long lost; he sought “a pantheistic penetration into the pulsating flow of blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in the atmosphere” (Franz Marc quoted in Hal Foster et al., Art since 1900, Thames and Hudson, 2004, p. 87). Master of animal anatomy, it is however not naturalistic accuracy that was here pursued as the painter clearly moves towards abstraction. Forms are simplified, expressive, the picture plane flattened, the colours un-referential. There is in Marc’s work a recurrence of subjects – one would be tempted to say symbols – and amongst horses, cows and foxes the deer has pride of place. It is to be found in flower gardens, monasteries, cavorting in the snow or sleeping in mysterious forests. Its representation oscillates between fluid figuration as in the present Deer in the Forest I and later sister version Deer in the Forest II (fig.3), and more fragmented, cubo-futurist lines – drawing from the later influence of a Delaunay or Picasso – as in yet another Deer in the Forest II (fig.4).
In the present work, characteristic of Franz Marc’s finest period, the deer appears peaceful, as an integral part of its organic surroundings and emanating the innocence the painter so admired in animals. Nature is here uncompromised, unspoiled by human imprint. The viewer is drawn in a mysterious garden of Eden before the Fall, invited on a journey of meditative contemplation. Yet one might feel a slight ambiguity here, a slight undertone of sadness and nostalgia for a paradise lost which gives additional depth to the work. Interestingly, the fall from grace becomes rather palpable in later paintings as the outbreak of war looms over Europe. In works such as Fate of the Animals (fig.5) especially – with the deer as central figure – doom and imminent catastrophe cast their shadows on visions of the primal flux of nature and of genesis and revival. Unsettlingly prophetic of horrors to come, the large painting of Marc’s final year of artistic creation radiates terrible beauty. Soon enough, Franz Marc would be painting camouflage on tarpaulin covers in the mud of the trenches and would look back on the Fate of Animals as an oracle of destruction and write to his wife: “At first glance I was completely shaken. It is like a premonition of this war horrible and gripping. I can hardly believe I painted it! It is artistically logical to paint such pictures before wars, not as dumb reminiscences afterward. For then, we must paint constructive pictures indicating the future, not memories as is now the case”.
Franz Marc would never have the chance to paint his constructive pictures indicating the future, for he was tragically killed during the assault on Verdun in 1916, but has left us sublime visions of the immanent world of nature and of an inner world where colours have spiritual resonances. Contemplating the present painting, one might hope that his soul is still wandering the woods, careful not to wake the sleeping deer.
– Emilie C.