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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Franz Marc: Yellow Cow 1911

New York, Guggenheim Museum

Late in 1915 the German Chief of the General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, made the decision to attack French forces at Verdun. On February 21st 1916 the attack was launched and the ensuing battle, which lasted most of that year is considered to be one of the most terrible in the annals of armed conflict. Both sides, locked in a blinkered strategic stalemate, committed huge numbers of troops in a remorselessly bloody struggle of attrition resulting in a relentless tide of casualties. One of those slaughtered on the hills surrounding Verdun was Franz Marc.

Marc was born in Munich and most of his short life was lived in or around that city which at this time was a leading centre for the visual arts. In 1896 Vasily Kandinsky had moved from Russia to Munich, forsaking a career in law in favour of studying art. Marc met Kandinsky in 1910 and a year later, frustrated by the conservatism of elements within a society of artists to which both belonged (the Neue Künstlervereinigung), they resigned and formed a new grouping which they called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Kandinsky explained that the name grew from their shared enthusiasm both for the colour blue and the imagery surrounding horses and riding – but there may have been more complex reasons behind the choice of name, perhaps including underlying associations with Germanic traditions of Christian warrior knights.

Furthermore, Marc explained in a letter to his friend and fellow painter August Macke that ‘Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual’. He went on to state that ‘Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two’. These ideas about colour were combined with Marc’s intense sensibility for the natural world to produce lyrical paintings such as Yellow Cow. The mystical importance that Marc felt for nature is summed up in a letter of 1908:

I am trying to intensify my ability to sense the organic rhythm that beats in all things, to develop a pantheistic sympathy for the trembling flow of blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in air – I am trying to make a picture of it … with colours which make a mockery of the old kind of studio picture.

The central figure of a remarkably graceful cow is, according to Marc’s colour theories, symbolic of femininity. The animal cavorts in a Fauvist landscape dominated by red and orange hues with triangular blue mountains set into a sky of magenta and lemon. It has been suggested that the cow could be a reference to his wife Maria (given her knowledge of his love of animals we can assume that she forgave him) and that the blue mountains are a symbolic ‘portrait’ of himself.

Not a surprising self-portrait for a man who studied philosophy and religion and looked to nature for artistic inspiration and with the hope of spiritual redemption. Marc believed that nature, and especially animals, possessed a godliness that man had long ago lost. ‘People with their lack of piety … never touched my true feelings,’ he wrote in 1915. ‘But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.’

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1911 Umberto Boccioni: The City Rises, New York, MOMA

1911 Georges Braque: The Portuguese, Basel, Kunstmuseum

1911 Fernand Léger: La Noce, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou

Further Paintings of Interest

The Three Dancers

Pablo Picasso

Landscape with Tower

Vasily Kandinsky

Picture with an Archer

Vasily Kandinsky