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Nicolas Eber: Franz Marc and the humanized portrayal of animals in painting

In all likelihood it is innate to mankind to judge everything surrounding him on the basis of his own image. The antic poet Xenophanes (570 – 470 b. Chr.) already observed in one of his poems the fact that men are creating their pictures of their gods according to their own picture. It is only fair to ask, what else could they do instead? This human inclination is also the root of anthropomorphism in the field of religions, in literature and fine arts and among them also in painting.

Franz Marc is often called the “Painter of animals”, based on his extensive late work and also through his own statement about the Animalisation of his art, which cannot be understood otherwise than that he had devoted himself largely to the representation of animals.

At the occasion of the outstanding exhibition entitled “Kandinsky, Marc and the Blue Rider” of the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen near Basel in Switzerland, between September 9, 2016 and January 22. 2017, where masterpieces from different leading museums of Europe and the USA were exhibited, his works were characterized as pantheistic – in conformity with his own statement according to which he was attempting to achieve a sympathetic understanding in a pantheistic sense. Pantheism stands for the comprehension of Gods identity with the nature and universe. For religious readers this is more than obvious, it does however hardly contribute to the better understanding of Franz Marc’s paintings.

In my opinion most of Franz Marc’s animal-paintings from the early 1910’s have to be regarded as anthropomorphic.

From its very beginning anthropomorphism had two different levels of opposing directions. With respect to the upper, invisible, immaterial and also mythological and spiritual level, situated in a symbolical sense above mankind, human aspirations were at all times directed towards the imagination that its representatives are human-like and to the attribution of human characteristics to them. The corresponding tendency consisted therefore in pulling them down to the terrestrial level. In a similar way – at least some of the beings of the animal-world from the hierarchically lower levels of the earthly nature – were since ever imagined as anthropomorphous and by such imagination uplifted to the level of mankind. One could consequently – and remarkably – characterize both tendencies together as a sort of equalization.

The anthropomorphic description of members of the animal kingdom has a long tradition in the literature of the western hemisphere. In this context it should be enough to recall the names of its most important authors. As first, in a chronological order, Aesop, active in the 6th century b. Chr. and thereafter Apuleius and his novel Golden Ass in the 1st century BC. Thereafter Jean de la Fontaine and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who in the 17th and 18th century reanimated Aesop’s animal tales, from the 18th century Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Reineke fox), the fables of the Grimm Bothers and from the 19th century Carlo Collodi (Pinocchio) and the Nobel Prize laureate Rudyard Kipling (Jungle Book), from the 20th century Felix Salten (Bambi) and last but not least George Orwell (Animal Farm).

In artistic painting – apart from the illustration of literature – the searching for anthropomorphism has turned out to be a vain effort. In that field the only attempt of importance – the activity of Franz Marc about one hundred years ago – remained surprisingly and remarkably unrecognized until these days. To my best knowledge history of art and art-criticism did not establish evidence or take notice so far of anthropomorphous painting of animals at all. The circumstance that the humanized, anthropomorphous representation of members of the animal world suffered such an extended delay in the field of painting compared to literature is however easy to understand in the light of its restricted possibilities and freedom in comparison to those of literature. In literature the humanized actors of the events may have their own names and are able to speak and act and thereby have their own individuality, whereas in the field of painting a naturally depicted animal is usually not more than an anonymous representative of the respective genus, without own individuality.

From this it is possible to conclude that the key question regarding the anthropomorphous representation of animals in painting consists in the conferment of an individuality. In other words the authentic anthropomorphous painting and the individuality of the depicted animals are inseparably tied to each other. Moreover it is indispensable to realize, that they are always products of imagination and that consequently pictures and portraits true to nature can never be considered as anthropomorphous.

Franz Marc had to create the individuality of the animals depicted by him in interest of their anthropomorphous representability exclusively by the means at his disposal: shape and color. He was in a way forced to allude with a kind of negation that the animals which he painted were no commonplace ones, but individuals. How he mostly achieved this was with a combination of unnatural coloration – for instance blue or yellow horses, yellow cow, blue fox – of unusual, extraordinary bearings and of impressing glances.

In this context it is instructive what Paul Klee, the friend and colleague in painting noticed into his diary in memory of Franz Marc’s soldier’s death: “ His inclination to the animals is humane. He is elevating them to himself”. This is very much in the sense as I understand anthropomorphism and further above interpreted it. It is furthermore interesting as well what the lyric Else Lasker-Schüler, wife of the Sturm-Founder Herwarth Walden and a good friend of Franz Marc wrote about him in a necrology: “He was the one, who was even able to hear the animals speaking and he glorified their ununderstood souls”. This, as well, is in conformity with Marc’s anthropomorphous style of painting.

With regard to the question that Marc’s intention did not consist simply in painting animals in the style of the orphic expressionism and making thereby use of the palette on the basis of the spectral colors initiated by Robert Delaunay, but that his clear intention and consideration consisted in their anthropomorphous representation, the following sentence from a letter to his wife Maria may serve as a significant allusion: “I have never the desire… to paint the animals as I see them, but as they are…”

A previously not mentioned aspect regarding the extended delay in the anthropomorphous representation of animals by painting in comparison is due to the fact that the problem of the missing individuality in painting only became soluble by the means of expressionism.

Consequently it seems that besides the problem of individuality a further indispensable criterion of the anthropomorphous painting of animals was hidden in the expressionist style. On the one hand this makes it understandable why the anthropomorphous and at he same time expressionistic painting of animals only became possible at the beginning of the 20th century – following the deployment of expressionism. On the other hand, considering that expressionism is merely an ism and therefore similar to all isms merely passing by, it makes it at least half-way understandable why Marc’s anthropomorphous animal painting – apart of the circumstance that owing to his ingenuity he was putting the bar very high – remained virtually without successors. His work may be therefore regarded as the crown and conclusion of a by all means apparently not augmentable development.

For the sake of further supporting the thesis according to which the predominant part of Franz Marc’s animal paintings created between 1911 and 1914 are classifiable as anthropomorphous, the following few illustrations are intended to serve as examples.

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Fig. 1. Blue horse in a landscape

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Fig. 2. Tiger

Fig. 1. and 2. “Blue horse in landscape” and “Tiger” are characteristic examples of Marc’s individualization of animals by means of coloratura and bearing and in the case of the Tiger by its impressive glance. The three cats in figure 3. can be clearly interpreted as showing the reaction of the two parents situated in the background to the provocative behavior of their sprout in the foreground of the painting, whereby the glances, facial expressions and bearings of all three appear clearly as anthropomorphous.

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Fig. 3. Cat family

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Fig.4. Wolves – The Balkan war 1913





The anthropomorphous character of the painting reproduced as figure 4 is entirely obvious and doubtless, as its title alone reveals the relevant intention of the painter, namely the symbolization of the extreme cruelty of the war in question. He is thereby simultaneously delivering a clear proof of the fact that the anthropomorphous representation of animals in other context and in general is not unfamiliar to him.

It is quite obvious, that at least in case of the paintings reproduced in figure 3 and in figure 4 the characterization anthropomorphous is by far better suitable and explanatory as that of the pantheistic one. Even if these are only two examples chosen from many others, they permit the significant conclusion that Franz Marc has succeeded in all likelihood as the first painter in solving the problem of anthropomorphous painting of animals and also that based upon these examples also many others of his animal paintings can justifiably be regarded as anthropomorphous.

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