The son of Wilhelm Marc, a successful landscape painter and Professor at the Munich Akademie der Bildenden Künste, and his devout Calvinist wife Sophie, Franz Marc was born in Munich on 8th February 1880. Unsurprisingly, given his background, the younger Marc was fascinated by art from an early age and had seemingly inherited his father’s formidable talent. Though he had hoped to study theology and become a minister, in accordance with his mother’s wishes, instead Marc chose to read philosophy at university. However, after a year of compulsory military service, a rethinking of his future options, led him to turn his attention back to his first love – art. At the age of 20, he entered the Akademie der Bildenden Künste and his tutors included the renowned illustrator, Wilhelm von Diez, who was to have a profound influence upon Marc’s own work.
In 1903, Marc spent several months in Paris, where he encountered some of the greatest names in Impressionism, but it was the Post-Impressionists, such as Gauguin and van Gogh, who truly seized his imagination. Returning to Munich in late 1903, Marc found his own studio in Schwabing, a bohemian part of the city. It was there that he met the art dealer, Annette von Eckardt, and the two quickly started an affair, despite her being married with two children and nine years his senior. In fact, von Eckardt and her husband, a respected professor of Sanskrit and Indology, acted as Marc’s patrons; but her volatile relationship with the fledgling artist lasted only two years, during which time Marc suffered from bouts of depression and his creativity was adversely affected.
Shortly after the end of his involvement with von Eckardt, Marc befriended two female painters who were both connected to the Women’s Academy of Munich Artist’s Association, Marie Schnür, a 36 year-old teacher there, and her pupil Maria Franck. Attracted to both women, in May 1906, Marc persuaded Marie and Maria to go with him to Kochel am See in Upper Bavaria, to spend the summer painting. Not only did they paint, they also engaged in a ménage à trois, with Marc capturing both his lovers on canvas as they sat gazing at the municipality’s glorious scenery.
Although he was more attached to Maria, in March 1907, Marc married Marie in a ceremony in Munich. It was very much a marriage of convenience as the father of Marie’s 8 year-old illegitimate son, was threatening to take the boy from her, which if she remained unmarried, was permissible by German law as it then stood. The pair did not even spend their wedding night together.
At the same time, Marc was growing increasingly close to Maria and when his union with Marie was dissolved in July 1908, feeling somewhat spurned, Marie cited his adultery with Maria as the reason for its breakdown. As a result of this accusation, Marc was unable to marry Maria, but they would eventually do so in London in 1911, although the marriage was not legally recognised in Germany until 1913.
Following a meeting with the fellow Expressionist, August Macke, in early 1910 and, delighted by their shared opinions and mutual beliefs about art, Marc was encouraged to set up Der Blaue Reiter in 1911, along with Macke and other like-minded artists including the Russians, Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin. Rejecting the artistic principles espoused by Kadinsky’s earlier collective, the Neue Künstlervereinigung München, the group (which only existed until 1914) eschewed traditional methods of painting and believed art should stir the human soul in a metaphysical way; its first exhibition was held in Muncich from December 1911 to January 1912, before moving to Berlin and Frankfurt. A vital element of Marc’s Expressionism was his bold use of colour and he attributed certain emotional properties to each, claiming that, ‘Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.’
Another striking aspect was Marc’s preferred subject matter, and his deep connection to animals and the natural world is reflected in the majority of his paintings, as he pondered, ‘Is there any more mysterious idea for an artist than the conception of how nature is mirrored in the eyes of an animal? How does a horse see the world, or an eagle, or a doe, or a dog?’
Between 1911 and 1912, Marc produced his most famous works, a series of paintings of blue horses, which were exhibited at the Frankfurter Kunstsalon M. Goldschmidt & Co. In 1912, Marc was introduced to the French painter Robert Delaunay, who, as a founder of Orphism, was identified with the use of strong, yet sensual, patterns and shapes. Indeed, Delaunay felt that art and music were intertwined, hence the movement’s name, a nod to Orpheus. It was a style that appealed to Marc and one he much admired. Consequently, the impact of his association with Delaunay can be in seen in Marc’s own paintings, in particular, Das arme Land Tirol (1913) and Kämpfende Formen (1914). The latter was to be Marc’s final finished piece before he volunteered to fight for Germany immediately after the outbreak of war.
Initially, Marc had been enthusiastic about the conflict, believing that it would somehow herald in a new age governed by a return to nature. But Marc was soon confronted by the brutal realities of war when his friend August Macke was killed in action on 26th September 1914, and he wrote to Maria, ‘War is one of the most evil things to which we have sacrificed ourselves.’ In August 1915, Marc was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and also received the Iron Cross for his bravery under fire.
As the Battle of Verdun blazed, on 4th Match 1916, Marc wrote to his wife Maria ‘this year I will be coming home to my unscathed, beloved home, to you and to my work. Amongst the boundless, horrific pictures of destruction among which I now live, the thought of returning home has an aura which cannot be sweetly enough described.’ Unknown to Marc, in February that year, he had been listed by the German Ministry for Intellectual and Educational Affairs as one of the distinguished whose return from combat was deemed necessary in order to boost public morale; merely hours later, he was hit by a shell and suffered a fatal head wound.
Maria published Marc’s letters to her in 1920, and in 1922, she moved Weimar to study at the Bauhaus before moving to Ascona, on the banks of Lake Maggiore in 1929. In 1937, the Nazis denounced Marc as a ‘degenerate artist’ and his paintings were removed from all national galleries in Germany. One can only imagine what Marc would have produced had he survived the war and the invaluable artistic insight into the horrors trench life he would have brought back with him. The sights and sounds of battle surrounding him, Marc continued to commit his ideas to paper whenever he could in his Sketchbook From the Front; inspired by his conviction that ‘Art is nothing but the expression of our dream; the more we surrender to it the closer we get to the inner truth of things, our dream-life, the true life that scorns questions and does not see them.’