When Franz Marc and August Macke met in Munich, sparks flew. The year was 1910, and finding fellow painters with an affinity for abstraction was still rare. Only a year earlier Pablo Picasso and George Braque had developed Analytical Cubism as Vasily Kandinsky went to work on his landmark Improvisation series, among the first truly abstract paintings created by a modern artist in Europe.
“I consider it a great stroke of luck to have at last met a colleague of so inward and artistic a disposition— rarissime!” Marc wrote to Macke that year. “How pleased I would be if we were to succeed in exhibiting our pictures side by side.”
Franz Marc and August Macke: 1909-1914 at Neue Galerie documents the prolific friendship of two artists, whose lives ended prematurely on battlefields in World War I, Macke dying near Perthes-lès-Hurlus in Champagne in September 1914 and Marc dying in March 1916, in the first weeks of the 10-month Battle of Verdun. Feverish travelers with their fingers on the pulse of Expressionism’s proto-modern use of abstraction, and co-founders (with Kandinsky and others) of German Expressionist art group Der Blaue Reiter, or The Blue Rider, these artists harnessed the emergent trends of 20th-century painting to reinvent the runout wheel of realism just moments before the brutality of war shattered many Europeans’ belief in civilized society into 40 million tiny pieces.
Curator Vivian Endicott Barnett has successfully applied a show-don’t-tell philosophy to her exhibition, which accomplishes the rare feat of building a rich historical narrative bereft of many didactic texts. One detailed timeline stretches along the museum’s third-floor hallway, but otherwise minimal text is scattered throughout the rooms. It’s an excellent decision for presenting Marc and Macke, whose paintings already have so much to say. And, like any dutiful curator, Barnett’s approach implicitly argues that Marc and Macke belong among the pantheon of Europe’s modern masters.
Even the smallest glance exposes the art historical connections. Look no further than Macke’s “Geraniums before Blue Mountain” (1910), an apparent homage to Paul Cézanne’s many impressions of Mont Sainte-Victoire. The iconic blue mountain is here — so are the loose brushstrokes and dark-outlined borders of shapes — but Macke has somewhat abandoned the French artist’s investigation of perspective and angle; Macke’s “Blue Mountain” operates almost like a compromise between Cézanne’s sensibility and Henri Matisse’s Fauvist appreciation of line and color.
Elsewhere, the correspondences with other artworks and artists will literally jump out at you, as with Marc’s joyful romp, “The Yellow Cow” (1911). The painting springs to life almost like a 3D picture-book: the landscape’s convex curves contrast with the concave line delineating the namesake cow’s arched back, creating a perception that the bovine was jumping out of the image. The approach wistfully recalls Marc Chagall’s dreamlike oeuvre of swooping figures.
But no figure had as much an impact on the pair of artists as Kandinsky. In 1911, he began a collaboration with Marc on The Blue Rider Almanac, an artist’s compendium showcasing the avant-garde’s early conception of Expressionism as a protest agains the rigid expectations of Munich’s preeminent New Artist’s Association. (The book featured contemporary, “primitive,” and folk art alongside children’s paintings.) And if Marc was already traveling on a path to full-blown abstraction, then his close relationship with Kandinsky catapulted him into the genre. Just two years later, he was painting beautiful and blocky technicolor paintings that emphasized a vertical geometry of rectangles and the occasional curve. Many of these paintings appear inspired by Kandinsky’s 1909 “The Waterfall.” Marc explicitly plays with this theme in “The Bewitched Mill” (1913), which depicts a waterfall falling over a mill wheel.
With “The Bewitched Mill” from 1913 Marc is on the verge of complete abstraction. He painted “Color Forms I” in that year, as well, which looks like the same image rendered in pure geometric form. One year later, the artist seems to resolve the discrepancy between figuration and abstraction with “Broken Forms” (1914), which recalls Cubism in its geometric lines, but with a hazy softness that evokes the musicality of the Blue Rider aesthetic.
Responding to his friend’s discoveries, Macke followed suit. “Colored Forms II” could be a response to the former’s similarly-titled painting, yet Macke appears more reluctant to fully commit to abstraction. He savors the impressionistic figures in works like “Two Figures at the River” (1913) and “Donkey Rider” (1914.). Had the two artists survived the war, perhaps their styles would have further diverged, after their mutual development.
Franz Marc and August Macke: 1909-1914 continues through January 21, 2019 at Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Vivian Endicott Barnett.