It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Monday, January 27, 2014

Der Blaue Reiter Almanac : Franz Marc

It is strange that people should value spiritual treasures so completely differently from material ones...

It is terribly difficult to present one's contemporaries with spiritual gifts... this melancholy reflection belongs in the columns of the Blaue Reiter because it is symptomatic of a larger evil of which the Blaue reiter will probably die: the general indifference of people to new spiritual  treasures... our gifts will be rejected with anger and abuse.... But maybe we will be right in the end.  People will not want that, but they will have to.  For we know  that our world of ideas is  not a house of cards to be played in, but that it contains elements of a movement whose vibrations can be felt today throughout the world..

Today the works of both (El Greco and Cezanne) mark the beginning of a new epoch in painting.  In their views of life both felt the mystical inner construction, which is the great problem of our generation.
....Franz Marc

The above  text  has been extracted from the first essay published in the Blaue Reiter Almanac (1911).

It was short to begin with, and all that's really missing are examples of  art critics and donors (Julius Meier-Grafe and Hugo von Tschudi) who were "attacked with undisguised hostility" or "driven from the city" for their advocacy of unfavorable art.

Scanning through the other essays, they also appear to be more  about shrill belligerence than aesthetic commentary - and they do indeed exemplify the "Preference for the Primitive" that Ernst Gombrich analyzed in his book of that title.

But it does appear that this yearbook may be the first (or first  known) compilation of art across both time and world culture -- putting it all under the same roof as our major encyclopedic  museums do today.

Not all of the essays discuss the visual arts -- but I think I'll examine those that do.

Thc reproductions were considered an essential part of the book. Since it was not the “conventional exterior” but the “inner life” that determined the value of a work of art, all standards of classical  aesthetics were rendered invalid 

 “With a divining rod we searched through the art of the past and present,” they said in the Preface to the Second Edition. . The pictures were carefuIIy placed in relation to each other so that the “inner sound” of one picture would be answered by the “contrasting sound” of the other. At the same time the examples of older proved cultures caused an “ordeal by fire” for their own endeavors. . Thus Kandinsky anticipated a valuable experience for the reader who would approach the pictures with the right attitude:

If the reader is able to rid himself of his own desires, his own ideas, his own feelings for a while and leafs through this book, going from a votive painting to Delaunay, from Cezanne to a work of Russian folk art, from a mask to Picasso, from a glass painting to Kubin, etc., etc., then his soul will experience many vibrations and he will enter the sphere of art.

Expansion of the traditional boundaries of artistic expression was put forth as a “basic tendency” of the editors as we have outlined
...  from the "History of the Almanac" by Klaus Lankheit

Unfortunately, the essays offer  little discussion of the many  reproductions included in the book -- but the choices themselves are interesting, so I will try to find full-color versions where possible.

Bavarian Glass Painting, 19th C.

The frontispiece (shown above)  is one of 10  examples of Hinterglasmaleri, comprising the largest genre of art works reproduced in the Almanac.

Most of them came from the collection of Johann Krotz, a master brewer from Oberammergau, a center for folk art.

I could not find a single color reproduction of any of them -- but here's the rest:

Regarding color, here's a colored variation of the above:

This piece also suggests that the artists were sometimes just making variations on a basic pattern.

None of the three hinterglasmaleri shown above were included in the Almanac, but they do give some idea of how these pieces look in color - giving  me a better idea why this was a genre that Kandinsky collected.

But still ---- I'm surprised why he gave these things so much attention -- and apparently I'm not alone -- since it is so much easier to search the internet for collectible beer steins than for Bavarian glass paintings, and I can't find any in the online database of either the Met or the Art Institute of Chicago.

Not a single one of the pieces selected for the Almanac can be found on the internet, even though most are in a museum in Oberammergau.

Hans Makart, Egyptian Princess, 1875

Here's the kind of 19th C. art with which  Kandinsky must have been familiar..... and  abhorred.

Perhaps it was  found to lack that "Mysticism" which Franz Marc highlighted in his second essay "The Savages of Germany" (Die Brucke in Dresden, the Neue Sezession in Berlin, and the Neue Vereiningung in Munich):

"Mysticism was awakened in their souls and with it the most ancient elements of art. ---- to  create out of their work symbols for their own time, symbols that beong on the altars of a future spiritual religion, symbols behind which the technical heritage cannot be seen"..Franz Marc

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Four Women Dancing" , 1910

A reproduction of the above lithograph was included in this essay. The artist was a founding member of Die Brucke.

Unfortunately, once again I could not find a color image on the internet.

But I did find another depiction of a dancer, done the same year:

Did Franz Marc really find any "Mysticism" here ? (BTW - I love this drawing)

August Macke, "The Storm", 1911

This piece, by one of the Bleue Reiter artists, also accompanies this essay -- and it does feel like some kind of trance-like, mystical vision.

Dayak ancestor figure, 76", Bern Historical Museum

This piece was published opposite the Kirchner.  The Bern Museum does not show it on its website -- and no site on the internet is yet dedicated to this genre -- other than dealers who show their inventory.  This piece feels much more elegant than any other Dayak pieces I could find.

Picasso, Woman with Guitar, 1911

Child's drawings (source not identified)

Here's two other pieces that were published opposite each other -- appearing beside Marc's first essay, "Spiritual Treasures", quoted at the top of this post.

Possibly this was in response to critics of cubism who said something  like "my child could do that" -  with a response like "OK - then your child is a good artist, too"

I would never guess that this was done by a child -- but would I really want to look at it more than once?

Would I like to put it on my wall - or  travel to a gallery to see it ?

In this case -- yes, I think I would.  It feels like an adept adult brain at work in the gritty real world.

But it's also identified with the most famous artist of the 20th C. and is worth millions of dollars  --- while the drawings by the child are considered so worthless, the artist has not been identified and the pieces have presumably ended up in a trash bin.

Social animals that we are, it's very difficult to separate social status from the process of making distinctions,

The compilers of the Almanac seem more concerned with the recognition that they receive (or don't)  than the recognition that they give to others -- which sometimes seems almost haphazard.

Kandinsky, "The Archer", 1908-9

Franz Marc, "Fantastic Creature", 1912

Above are the two color plates of their own work  that appeared at the very beginning of the deluxe edition of the book

For whatever reason, nude women are not depicted by any of  the Blue Reiter artists in this Almanac -- although that was a very popular subject among the advance-guard artists of the time.

Female nudes by Marc and Macke can be found elsewhere -- but Kandinsky didn't do them at all-- and as the senior member of the group, perhaps the other two were following his lead in this project.  He may have felt that subject matter was less 'spiritual'  (which is possibly why Van Gogh did not paint them either)

from the 1495 edition of "The Knight of the Tower" 
written by Chevalier de La Tour Landry

But they did include the semi-nudes in the above woodcut - one of the many lively designs in that book, some of which have been attributed to Albrecht Durer.

It's basically a one-point perspective, modified for dramatic impact.

So once again I'm wondering why it was chosen for the Almanac -- especially as the first historical piece in the book - right next to the Marc and Kandinsky.

It seems so conventional.

Here's a few more images that I found online -- it's a delightful book.

But then there's this piece,
originally labeled as a "Chinese painting"

Unfortunately, no other Chinese paintings are included in the Almanac,
and there's some doubt regarding the Asian origins of this one.

It looks horrible to me - but it was probably chosen
to complement the dog-like creature by Franz Marc shown above.

There are certainly plenty of wonderful Chinese fantastic creatures
to be found in the world,
though mostly they are ceramic sculptures
(above is from the Tang Dynasty)

But I doubt that Marc and Kandinsky
had access to it.

They were limited to the relatively small
ethnographic collections
found in museums and libraries of their time


Kandinsky, "Lyrical" , 1911

The following is the complete text of the third essay  by Franz Marc, entitled "Two Pictures":

Knowledge must be vindicated by its children. If we wish to be wise enough to teach our contemporaries, we must justify our knowledge through our works and we must exhibit them as a matter of course. We will make this as difficult as possible for ourselves, never fearing the ordeal by fire that will result from placing our works, which point to the future and are still unproved, beside the works of older, proved cultures, We believe that nothing can illustrate our ideas better than such comparisons. Genuine art can always be compared with genuine art, however different the expression may be. 

Though, many of the pieces they  included could hardly be considered the finest work of "older proved cultures"

Time favors such considerations, for we believe that we stand today at the turning point of two long epochs.

The awareness of this turning point is not new; its summons was even louder a hundred years ago. At that time people thought they were very close to a new era, much closer than we believe today. 

He must be referring to the French Revolution

A century intervened, during which a long and exceedingly rapid development took place. Mankind practically raced through the last stage of a millennium that had begun  after the fall of the great classical world. At that time the “primitives” broke ground for a long development of a new art, and the first martyrs died for the new Christian ideal.

To which "martyrs" does he refer -- and what was the "new Christian ideal" ?  I am totally puzzled.

 Today this long development in art and religion is over, but the vast land is still full of ruins, of old ideas and forms that will not give way, although they belong to the past. The old ideas and creations live on falsely, and we stand helplessly before the Herculean task of banishing them and paving the way for what is new and already standing by. Science works negatively, au detriment de la religion—what a terrible confession for the spiritual work of our time. 

To what "long development" in religion does he refer ?  It's decline ?

It can be sensed that there is a new religion arising in the country, still without a prophet, recognized by no one.Religions die slowly.

It's a hundred years later, now, and nothing like a "new religion" has yet arisen  (unless you count Communism-Maoism as such -- and they have already vanished)

If  Kandinsky and Marc knew that their  "new art" would eventually have much more to do with commerce than anything like a religion -- would they still call it "genuine"?

But the artistic style that was the inalienable possession of an earlier era collapsed catastrophically in the middle of the nineteenth century. There has been no style since. It is perishing all over the world as if seized by an epidemic. Since then, serious art has been the work of individual artists  whose art has had nothing to do with “style” because they were not in the least connected with the style or the needs of the masses.

(In France, for example, Cezanne and Gauguin to Picasso; in Germany Marées and Hodler to Kandinsky. This is not supposed to be an evaluation of these artists, but is merely to indicate the development of forms of expression in France and Germany.)

I wish he identified the some of the artists who exemplified  "catastrophic collapse"

Despite his national pride, there might not be any good examples of German artists who preceded Kandinsky in the same way that Gauguin and Cezanne preceded Picasso.  How did Marc come up with Hodler ?  And  Hans Von Marees is even a further stretch.

Judging from the images shown above, I would associate Von Marees (1837 - 1887) more closely with  "catastrophic collapse" 

Obviously, he loved  the pictorial space of the Italian Renaissance (Titian, Gorgione etc) --  but it was too difficult for him to control -- so his pieces end up feeling clumsy and awkward.

Even if  his homoerotic subject matter is  bold and fascinating 

The drawing at the top is a self portrait accompanied by his former lover and collaborator, Adolf Von Hildebrand, and Hildebrand's new girl friend.  (note: I quoted Hildebrand here for his contribution to formalism, as both a sculptor and theorist)  

Their works arose rather in defiance of their times.

They are characteristic, fiery signs of a new era that increase daily everywhere. This book will be their focus until dawn comes and with its natural light removes from these works the spectral appearance they now have. What appears spectral today will be natural tomorrow.
Where are such signs and works? How do we recognize the genuine ones?
Like everything genuine, its inner life guarantees its truth. All works of art created by truthful minds without regard for the work’s conventional exterior remain genuine for all times.

At the beginning of this article we showed two small examples of this: a popular illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales of 1832 and a painting by Kandinsky of 1910. The first is as genuine and as completely heartfelt as a folk song and was understood in its time with perfect obviousness and love; for in 1832 every journeyman and every prince shared the artistic feeling  out of which the little picture was created. Everything genuine created at that time had this pure, untroubled relation to the public.

For what it's worth - the editor of this translation tells us that there was no 1832 edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales - nor can this illustration be found in any other edition.

But regardless of its origin, it's painful, at least to me, to compare this with the Kandinsky horseman shown above it -- and I would suggest that not only does it not stand above any other sentimental illustration of 1832 -- it's soft,  exhausted, sentimental effect can be found in illustrations today as well.

Perhaps it appealed to Marc because it displays a fondness for animals.

But now we believe that anyone who feels the spiritual and artistic quality in the old fairy-tale picture will find in Kandinsky’s painting, our modern example, the same spiritual artistic expression—even if
he cannot enjoy it as readily as the Biedermeier enjoyed his fairy-tale picture. For such a relationship to exist, the necessary, basic condition, even today, is that the artist’s “homeland” possess a style.

Since this is not the case, a chasm must exist between the genuine creation of art and the public. Itt cannot be otherwise because the artist can no longer create out of the now-lost artistic instinct of his people.

It's difficult, today, to imagine that nationalism might coexist with avant garde aesthetics - but clearly it did so in Marc - as he continued the German intellectual tradition of enmeshing art with history.

But could not this very fact encourage serious thinking along the lines previously suggested? Perhaps the viewer will begin to dream in front of the new painting and encourage his soul to move onto a new plane?

The present isolation of the rare, genuine artist is absolutely unavoidable for the moment. This assertion is clear, only the reasons for it are missing.

The reasons, we think, are these: nothing occurs accidentally and without organic reason—not even the loss of artistic style in the nineteenth century.  

This is an incredible statement.  Perhaps he thinks that 19th C. art lost its style as it became more international - just as, a century later, one might say that 20th C. art lost its style as it became more theoretical.

This fact leads us to the idea that we are standing today at the turning point of two long epochs, similar to the state of the world fifteen hundred years ago, when there was also a transitional period without art and religion—a period in which great and traditional ideas died and new and unexpected ones took their place. Nature would not wantonly destroy the religion and art of the people without a great purpose. We are also convinced that we can already proclaim the first signs of the time.

I wonder where Marc got the idea of linking  400  AD to 1900 AD ?  Perhaps it coincides with the dismemberment of the Roman Empire, followed by the dismemberment of the  Holy-Roman Empire 1500 years later.

The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define. Who can see clearly what their aim is and what is to come? But just the fact that they do exist and appear in many places today, sometimes independently of each other, and that they possess inner truth, makes us certain that they are the first signs of the coming new epoch-they are the signal fires for the pathfinders.
The hour is unique. Is it too daring to call attention to the small, unique signs of the time? 
...Franz Marc

Heinrich Campendonk (1889-1957), "Jumping horse", 1911

Included in this section is the work of another member of Der Blaue Reiter, who, coincidentally, has also painted a blue horse.  Perhaps he was just following the leader -- but he did a pretty good job.

San Marco, Venice,  South transept, west wall, 13th C.

This section ends with another Bavarian Glass painting - and the above mosaic from San Marco.

But I prefer those San Marco mosaics that were done in an earlier style -- they're less severe, more playful.

And this is one instance where my access to the original art is no better than their's.


Overall -- "Two Pictures"  is one bizarre essay for me -- mostly because  I am so puzzled by  the similarity that Marc finds between Kandinsky's "Lyrical" and the "Reinhold Das Wunderkind"

They seem as oppositional as Bouguereau's Venus and Picasso's "Les Demoiselles"


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