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Art & artists

Macke and Marc: friends, modernists and ‘Blue Riders’

— August 2015

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Franz Marc, Die Gelbe Kuh, 1911, Öl auf Leinwand, 140.5 x 189.2cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

A wonderful exhibition on two underappreciated artists did not travel beyond Germany - but the catalogue is now here

August Macke and Franz Marc: An Artist Friendship, edited by Annegret Hoberg and Volker Adolphs

Artist friendships have been crucial to the genesis of modern art and those of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and André Derain, Pablo Picasso and George Braque, and John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg are now legendary.  One friendship that has been overlooked is the brief but powerful camaraderie of Franz Marc and August Macke, which began in 1910 and ended with Macke’s death in 1914.  Sharing ideas and theories, engaging in debates and disagreements, studying recent and earlier art and one another’s work, exploring similar subjects more or less simultaneously while feeling totally free to devote themselves to their respective interests, and a major collaboration on a mural were hallmarks of this dynamic relationship that nourished these artists. Both were crucial to the development of modernism in Germany and the birth of abstraction.  Sadly, both men died young and at the height of their artistic powers fighting in the First World War.

August Macke and Franz Marc: An Artist Friendship is the extensive catalogue to a recent exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn and Lenbachaus in Munich, which commemorated the centennial of Macke’s death and the upcoming centennial of Marc’s equally premature and tragic demise.  The catalogue is a long overdue study of the development of these two artists and the considerable mutual influence they had on one another as their modernist sensibilities blossomed in the five or so years before they died.  The literature on Marc is fairly lengthy but much of it is now more than 40 years old and mostly in German.  The literature on Macke is not as extensive, is also rather outdated, and is also mostly in German.  Thus those with limited knowledge of German or without access to the most internationally rich academic libraries have long been at a disadvantage in keeping up with this subject. 

Marc and Macke tend to get lost in the shadows cast by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, their contemporaries who are much better known internationally and have been studied much more extensively.  So it is most fortunate that this new catalogue is available in both German and English, and that the English translation is impressively clear and readable.  This book is essential for those of all nationalities with a particular interest in these artists, but its abundance of high-quality colour illustrations and forthright writing style should have broader appeal and utility. The only lamentable thing about the exhibition is that it did not travel internationally.

The catalogue provides much new information and many useful and helpful insights and interpretations from numerous German scholars.  The authors have been wise about knowing when to compare the two painters and when to examine them individually, analysing their obvious stylistic similarities and complicated thematic connections while respecting important differences.  The one flaw of the essays is that the authors tend to rely on brief summaries or citations to earlier scholarship for further exploration of many issues.  Since most of these sources are not easily accessible, it would have been very helpful if there were more frequent and fuller summaries of the earlier research to which these writers often refer in passing or haste.

The essays in the first third of the book explore important themes and issues in the  development and thinking of Marc and Macke, which demonstrate their fascinating array of affinities and differences.  Annegret Hoberg provides a concise overview of how the two artists met and quickly became close friends as they exchanged and discussed ideas on design, style, techniques, subjects for their paintings, and the rapid evolution of modernism in Germany, including the rise of Expressionism, the goals of the Blue Rider, and their responses to Kandinsky’s work and ideas.  Volker Adolphs’ essay on the two artists’ differing attitudes about nature and spirituality is revealing and insightful in clarifying their thinking and intentions.  Ursula Heiderich’s exploration of their interest in earlier modernism, Renaissance and Baroque painting, and ancient art is equally insightful.  Klara Drenker-Negels’ short essay on the friendship of the artists’ wives Maria Marc and Elizabeth Macke offers another perspective on these artists: the importance of the women in their lives for their development and success.  Gregor Wedekind’s essay on the two artists’ interest in non-European, pre-industrial cultures and art is quite enlightening, especially in regard to Macke and his often-overlooked contribution to the Blue Rider Almanac.  Ewe M. Schneede concludes the essays with a fascinating account of how the two artists first responded to the First World War enthusiastically with patriotic zeal and a sense of global social and moral cleansing, but quickly changed their views once they witnessed firsthand the bloody horrors of combat.

Most of the book is the wonderfully illustrated catalogue of the paintings, drawings and prints in the exhibition, some of them quite recognizable but many of them visually thrilling discoveries.  Hoberg and Adolphs provide a detailed historical overview of the lives and works of the two artists by organizing all the works shown in nine chronological-thematic sections that focus on the initial meeting of the two men, the subjects and themes they preferred, their ideas on the emotive and synaesthetic qualities of colours and how they should use colour, their involvement with the Blue Rider (the group now associated most closely with Kandinsky), their interest in folk art and crafts, the influence of Cubism, Futurism, and other early abstraction on their work, and the last works done as the First World War began. 

This organization of the reproductions is exceptionally well planned, for it allows the reader to follow each artist’s progression while giving ample opportunities to pause at individual works and compare the two artists at any given point but also when most appropriate and insightful.  The two authors’ introductions are impressively succinct and solidly factual, so they do not repeat the more analytic and interpretative essays that launch the book.  This highly readable but scholarly book concludes with a useful chronology and extensive bibliography of important earlier studies.

August Macke and Franz Marc: An Artist Friendship,  edited by Annegret Hoberg and Volker Adolphs, published by Hatje Verlag, Berlin,  2015. 360 pp., black/white and color illus, £35.00/$60.00. ISBN:  978-3775738835


Herbert R. Hartel, Jr
Hofstra University
Adjunct Associate Professor of Art History

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