Animal Imagery and Color—The Work of Franz Marc

“Your paintings remind me of the work of Franz Marc.” I received this comment (and, I think, compliment) some months ago from a young visitor to my website. It immediately reminded me of a 1912 painting of Marc’s entitled Deer in a Monastery Garden—a favorite of mine. I think of this work as having strong Cubist influence, but Marc’s is not the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, not the Cubism of fractured faces and figures, and certainly not the Cubism of cafés where people drank coffee and cognac and spread newspapers out on tabletops.

Marc’s Cubist tendencies are applied to nature, in this case to the monastery’s garden where a young deer hides among bits of light cracking through the leaf canopy. The fawn is nearly invisible, absorbed into the texture and colors of the environment. Though influenced by the genre (who wasn’t in the early twentieth century), Marc wasn’t really a Cubist painter. He believed deeply in the spirituality of a natural rather than a human-made world. He was part of a deeply felt movement of German Expressionism, something of a Romantic, and a bold colorist.

Marc had no trouble painting horses blue or conceiving of a bright yellow cow. In fact, the deer in the monastery painting is actually rendered in yellow, ochre, and green, as if the green of the light is being picked up by its dappled coat and somehow that energy is being stored there.

When I went back to explore reproductions of Marc’s paintings in a book I own, I recalled that his images of animals always moved me. I grew up in nature, observing wild animals. I have always felt a deep connection with animals. My earliest childhood drawings were often of birds, fish, and small mammals. People seemed complicated to me. Animals were always deeper and more interesting, certainly more mysterious. My father was a game warden, and we sometimes rehabilitated injured animals. We once cared for a fawn for several months. His back leg had been grazed, pierced by an arrow. He was very small, but I helped suckle him with a baby bottle filled with warm, watered-down cow’s milk. We kept him in our garage inside a fence made from bales of straw. Soon he could leap the fence. He survived and was later released on a game farm.

Those memories of a specific animal yield for me a particularly emotional connection to Deer in a Monastery Garden. I recall the soft liquid eyes of a small deer I passed many hours with. Marc indicates the eye of his fawn with a soft, dark mark, almost smeared but enough to indicate that this was a living being with its own vision.

Marc didn’t merely study animals. He related them to himself and to the human world. For him, they represented a spiritual sense of his world and a way toward what was best within himself. He wrote: “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings. But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that is good in me.”*

Under the influence of formal art training, I almost completely abandoned any iconography that referred to animals. Still, I’ve returned to drawing animals, birds, and fish throughout my life. It might be time to revisit that connection.

*Mark Rosenthal, Franz Marc, New York: Prestel Publishing, 2004,13

Image of  Marc’s Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses), Harvard Art Museums