This Artist Turned to Painting Animals in a Turbulent Historical Moment

The German Expressionist painter Franz Marc found a subject worth celebrating in the early 20th century

a colorful abstract painting of a tiger
Tiger, oil on canvas, 1912. The artist’s vibrant animal paintings were based on careful study, including hours spent observing big cats at the Berlin Zoo.  Lenbachhaus Munich, Donation of the Bernhard and Elly Koehler Foundation 1965

Franz Marc came of age in the early 20th century, a period of rapid change and impending global upheaval. “The climate they were living in was quite apocalyptic,” says Natalia Sidlina, curator of a new show at London’s Tate Modern of artists associated with the journal Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”). “It was a time when empires were about to clash, a time of crises of faith, of class struggle.” Founded in Munich by Marc and his friend Wassily Kandinsky, the Blue Rider circle believed that art could not only reflect the turmoil of the times but also help point to a better future.

Marc would dedicate most of his canvases to animals. “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings,” he wrote his wife in 1915. “But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that is good in me.” His perception of man’s wickedness would prove tragically prescient. Drafted into the German Army in World War I, Marc was killed in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun.

expressionist painting of a couple riding a hourse
Riding Couple, Wassily Kandinsky, 1906-1907 Lenbachhaus Munich, Donation of Gabriele Münter, 1957
an expressionist painting of a big top circus
Circus, Erma Bossi, 1909 Lenbachhaus Munich, on permanent loan from Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Foundation, Munich
a colorful abstract  expressionist painting
Improvisation Gorge, Wassily Kandinsky, 1914 Lenbachhaus Munich, Donation of Gabriele Münter, 1957
a painting of women in floral hat
Portrait of Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter, 1909 Lenbachhaus Munich, Donation of Gabriele Münter, 1957 © DACS 2023
an abstract painting of a man
Listening (Portrait of Jawlensky), Gabriele Münter, 1909    Lenbachhaus Munich, Donation of Gabriele Münter, 1957 © DACS 2023

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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