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The Blue Horses of Our Destiny: Artist Franz Marc, the Wisdom of Animals, and the Fight of Beauty Against Brutality
“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” wrote Mary Oliver in one of the masterpiece from her suite of poems celebrating the urgency of aliveness, Blue Horses (public library).
In the bleak winter of 1916, in the thickest darkness of World War I, several enormous canvases dappled in pointillist patterns of color appeared across the French countryside, as if Kandinsky or Klee had descended upon the war-torn hills to bandage the brutality with beauty. But no. The painted tarps were military camouflage, designed to conceal artillery from aerial observation — the work of the young German painter, printmaker, and Expressionist pioneer Franz Marc (February 8, 1880–March 4, 1916), who had devoted himself to parting the veil of appearances with art in order to “look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature.”
Conscripted into the German Imperial Army at the outbreak of the war, midway through his thirties and just after a period of extraordinary creative fecundity, Marc found this improbable outlet for his artistic vitality during his military service. Unlikely to have had any practical advantage over ordinary camouflage, his colossal canvases are almost certain to have served as a psychological lifeline for the young artist drafted into the machinery of death.
Within a month of painting them, Marc was dead — a shell explosion in the first days of the war’s longest battle sent a metal splinter into his skull, killing him instantly while a German government official was compiling a list of prominent artists to be recalled from military service as national treasures, with Marc’s name on it.
The Fate of the Animals, 1913.
Among the paintings he produced in those two ecstatically prolific years just before he was drafted was The Fate of the Animals — an arresting depiction of the interplay of beauty and brutality, terror and tenderness, in the chaos of life. An inscription appeared under the canvas in Marc’s hand: “And all being is flaming agony.”
Destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1916, The Fate of the Animals was restored by Marc’s close friend Paul Klee, who painstakingly recreated the oil canvas from surviving photographs.
Animals, Marc felt, were in many ways superior to humans — more honest in their expression of their inner truths, in more direct contact with the inner truths of nature:
Animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.
The Little Monkey, 1912. (Available as a print.)
The Large Blue Horses, 1911. (Available as a print.)
In 1910, just before he turned thirty, Marc became a founding member of The Blue Rider — a journal that became an epicenter of the German Expressionist community that included artists like Kandinsky, who had just formalized his thinking on the role of the spiritual in art, and Klee. At the end of that year, Marc began corresponding with the twenty-two-year-old writer and pianist Lisbeth Macke, who was married to one of the Blue Rider artists, about the relationship between color and emotion through the lens of music. Exactly a century after Goethe devised his psychology of color and emotion, Macke and Marc created a kind of synesthetic color wheel of tones, assigning sombre sounds to blue, joyful sounds to yellow, and a brutality of discord to red. Marc went on to ascribe not only emotional but spiritual attributes to the primary colors, writing to Macke:
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!
Further exploring the analogy between music and color, Marc envisioned the equivalent of music without tonality in painting — a sensibility where “a so-called dissonance is simply a consonance apart,” producing a harmonic effect in the overall composition, in color as in sound.
Twenty years after Marc’s death on the battlefields of the First World War, when the forces of terror that had fomented it festered into the Second, the Nazis declared his art “degenerate.” Many of his paintings went missing after WWII, last seen in a 1937 Nazi exhibition of “degenerate” art, alongside several of Klee’s paintings. Marc’s art is believed to have been seized by Nazi leaders for their personal theft-collections. An international search for his painting The Tower of Blue Horses has been underway for decades. In 2012, another of his missing paintings of horses was discovered in the Munich home of the son of one of Hitler’s art dealers, along with more than a thousand other artworks the Nazis denounced as “degenerate” in their deadly ideology but welcomed into their private living rooms as works of transcendent beauty and poetic power.
The title poem of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses embodies the original meaning of empathy, which became popular in the early twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. The poet projects herself into Marc’s painting The Large Blue Horses, running her hand gently one animal’s blue mane, letting another’s nose touch her gently, as she reflects on Marc’s tragic, tremendous life that managed to make such timeless portals into beauty and tenderness in the midst of unspeakable brutality:
I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Bridging the Island Universes of Our Experience: Aldous Huxley on Making Sense of Ourselves and Each Other
Conversing with a symphonic-minded physicist and a science-spirited musician on a small boat off the coast of a small island, I express my skepticism that the swell of digital records would improve posterity’s ability to know us better than we know our antecedents. A life, my companions argue as a thousand tiny waves scatter the late-summer sun into a shimmering constellation around us, is immensely easier to reconstruct from the mass of emails and text messages we will each leave behind than it is from a handful of faded letters in a Victorian desk-drawer.
There is a surface logic to this reasoning. Despite my years-long immersion in the totality of Emily Dickinson’s surviving archives, I — and you, and she — will never have a final theory of who this person, this flickering constellation of poetic conceits and personal contradictions, really was. But even as an archive-dwelling scholar frequently forestalled by the dearth of surviving records of bygone lives, I doubt that more information equals more illumination. We can hardly fathom our own depths, much less another’s — no matter the count of waves.
Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea
It is less a problem of records than a problem of reckonings. We habitually see ourselves not as we are but as we aspire to be or fear we might be. Too readily, too unconsciously, we absorb who the world tells us we are, then live into — up to, or down to — that image, tender porous creatures that we are. (That, of course, is the most toxic effect of bigotry — we come to internalize our own devaluation by society, even if we consciously believe otherwise.) All the while, half-opaque as we are to ourselves, we keep trying to communicate to others what we want, what we mean, what it is like to be us. Even at their most honest and self-aware, these transmissions are irresolute and incomplete. Often, they are warped by our yearning to appear a certain way to the receiver, to achieve a certain effect with the signal — ripples on the surface of the self, catching the light depending on the position of the observer and the fleeting weather system of the observed. The Victorian love letter and the text message, the memoir and the Instagram selfie — they are all fragments of self-expression frozen in time, expressing a self fragmentary and discontinuous across the sweep of a life, fragments that can never reconstitute for posterity a complete and cohesive portrait of a person, because to be a person is to be perpetually contradictory and incomplete.
There is strange consolation in this, in knowing ourselves and each other only incompletely — a mercy that saves us from the tyranny of a final verdict on who and what we are.
The conversation on the boat reminded me of a passage by Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963), exquisitely illustrative of these ambiguities and ambivalences of personhood.
In his 1954 classic The Doors of Perception (public library), which explores a particular biochemical method for plumbing those unfathomed depths of personhood far beneath the surface waves of the self, he makes this astute general observation:
Human beings are immensely complicated creatures, living simultaneously in a half dozen different worlds. Each individual is unique and, in a number of respects, unlike all the other members of the species. None of our motives is unmixed, none of our actions can be traced back to a single source and, in any group we care to study, behavior patterns that are observably similar may be the result of many constellations of dissimilar causes.
The confusion only deepens when two complexities try to make sense of each other, as we do whenever we connect with one another:
To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.
Such clarity of vision across the abyss of subjective experience is inherently challenging — we inhabit, in Huxley’s lovely poetic image, “island universes.” He writes:
We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.
Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy or “feeling into.” Thus, remembering our own bereavements and humiliations, we can condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (always, of course, in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent.
Art from the 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, who originated the “island universes” concept. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)
In certain cases, Huxley observes, those other minds appear to “belong to a different species and inhabit a radically alien universe” — none among us can be anything more than a bewildered visitor to the wonderlands which Bach and Blake called home. Even in less extreme cases, even in the everyday wonderlands we ourselves inhabit, the limitations of language — our primary instrument for outrospection — keep us from inviting others into the place where we live. Drawing on that timeless line from Milton’s Paradise Lost — a line that might just be the most succinct summation of all philosophy and all psychology — Huxley writes:
The mind is its own place… Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten. The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.
Complement with James Baldwin, writing in the same era, on “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are” and a sweeping Borges-infused reflection on chance, the universe, and the fragility of knowing who we are, then revisit Huxley on the power of music and the antidote to our existential helplessness.
How (Not) to Be a Writer: Chekhov on Why the Task of Art Is Not to Solve Problems But to Formulate Questions
It is a truism that the questions we ask shape the answers we find. It is, also, a truth. Another is that our questions — those wonderments, uncertainties, and quickenings of doubt that roil under the surface of life — are the atomic units of our creativity. Everything we make — our songs and our stories, our poems and our equations — we make to find out how the world works and what we are, to find out how to live with our restless longing for absolutes in a relative universe. Such questions — the questions that “can make or unmake a life,” in the words of the perceptive poet David Whyte — are both the raw material and the end result of all great art; art is tasked not with solving the puzzles of being but with dissolving the false certainties of our near-life experience.
Anton Chekhov (January 29, 1860–July 15, 1904) was twenty-eight when he addressed this in letter to a friend, included in How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight from His Own Letters and Work (public library).
Corresponding with his friend Alexei Suvorin — a short story writer, playwright, and journalist, who went on to become the most influential newspaper publisher in the sunset hour of the Russian Empire — Chekhov, translated by Lena Lenček, writes on October 27, 1888:
I do sometimes preach heresies, but I have never, not once, gone so far as to deny that hard questions have no place in art. In conversations with my fellow writers, I always insist that it is not the job of the artist to solve narrowly specialized questions. It is bad for the artist to tackle what he* does not understand. We have specialists for dealing with specialized questions; it is their job to make decisions about the peasant commune, the fate of capitalism, the evils of alcoholism, about boots, and female complaints.
A century before James Baldwin observed that the task of the artist is to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides” and Susan Sontag insisted that the writer must guard against becoming an “opinion-machine,” Chekhov argues that the work of the artist is not problem-solving — this is best left to those with aptitude suited to the problem at hand — but question-framing:
Anyone who says that the artist’s sphere leaves no room for questions, but deals exclusively with answers, has never done any writing or done anything with imagery. The artist observes, selects, guesses, and arranges; every one of these operations presupposes a question at its outset. If he has not asked himself a question at the start, he has nothing to guess and nothing to select.
Cautioning against the common conflation of two distinct concepts — “solving the problem” and “correctly formulating the problem” — he observes:
Only the latter is required of the artist. Not a single problem is resolved in Anna Karenina or Eugene Onegin, and yet the novels satisfy you completely because all the problems they raise are formulated correctly. It is the duty of the law courts to correctly formulate problems, but it is up to the members of the jury to solve them, each to his own taste.
Complement with Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the creative power of uncertainty and David Whyte’s questioning poem “Sometimes,” then revisit Chekhov on the 8 qualities of cultured people and his 6 rules for a great story.