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By Annalise Nelson, Contributing Writer

When Wassily Kandinsky was asked how he and the German painter Franz Marc first came up with the name for their Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), Kandinsky had an amusingly simple explanation: "We both loved blue," he said, "Marc horses and I riders. So the name seemed obvious." The new exhibit at the Busch-Reisinger, Franz Marc: Horses, has perhaps taken its cue from Kandinsky's anecdote. Spotlighting in particular Marc's "Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses)," the exhibit celebrates a single, simple theme: Marc's love of and fascination with horses. But the effect is anything but obvious. The six paintings on display, produced within the short but critical time span of 1911 to 1913, are testimony to both Marc's flexible style and his changing perceptions of nature and humanity. Combined, they create a remarkable exhibit that both remains accessible to its audience and provokes discussion.

This is probably not the first time you've seen "Grazing Horses IV." If you haven't encountered it while flipping through any old history of modern art, chances are you've seen it on the side of a coffee mug or on your suburbanite neighbor's living room wall. With its three wonderfully spirited red horses cavorting in their Technicolor landscape, it isn't difficult to see why Marc's painting has been so wildly admired and widely reproduced. In fact, the only time since its initial unveiling in 1911 that the painting hasn't been enthusiastically received was in 1939, when it was sold with several other works by Marc at the Nazis' infamous "degenerate art" auction in Lucerne. Now a long-term loan and promised gift to the Busch-Reisinger, "Grazing Horses IV" remains a vivid example of Marc's view of the natural world.

"Is there a more mysterious idea for an artist than the conception of how nature is mirrored in the eyes of an animal?" wrote Marc in 1911. "How wretched, how soulless is our convention of placing animals in a landscape that belongs to our eyes, instead of sinking ourselves in the soul of the animal in order to imagine its perception." Marc's solution to what he saw as rampant anthropocentrism in artistic depictions of nature was to limit his canvases to a few key stylistic elements and to combine these elements into a unified whole. In the first four canvases of the exhibit, which span the years 1911 to 12, Marc focuses in on the animals' perspective by essentializing color, form and movement.

While it can often be tricky to talk about progress or development in an artist's oeuvre, this exhibit does give a good indication of how Marc's style transformed over a span of three years. The fiercely independent animals of "Grazing Horses IV" merge into what seems to be almost a collective consciousness composed of three round figures in "Large Blue Horses." The landscape emerges from the background, becoming a living presence that closely surrounds the horses. Color is reduced to mere essentials, to primary hues that had symbolic value for Marc. Blue came to signify masculinity, yellow femininity and red terrestriality. Marc felt that the two sexes were together engaged in a conflict with the material world surrounding them and he sought to resolve this tension by exploring the dynamic relationships between the colors in his paintings.

Looking at these four paintings, you'd hardly guess that World War I was less than two years in the future. This was, in a way, part of Der Blaue Reiter's aim. Unlike the earlier Die Brcke movement, the second wave of prewar Expressionism-Marc, Kandinsky and their collaborators-did not paint the social upheavals of their time. Instead, they attempted to transcend social discord by creating images of other, hypothetical worlds. For Kandinsky, this meant a focus on apocalyptic imagery. And for Marc, of course, there was the natural world.

But by 1913, just months before war broke out, Marc found it impossible to ignore the tense conditions in Germany. His painting "The Poor Country of Tyrol" is a stark contrast to his earlier depictions of equine bliss. With its chalky gray background, desolate black outlines and weak streaks of color, Marc's depiction of this disputed territory is a chilling premonition of the destruction the war was to bring. Marc's horses have not disappeared from the landscape, but they have lost all of their vitality. Their stick-like heads lowered, they serve more as symbols of the unhappy land rather than as living creatures.

Marc's later works show the influence of not only the tense social climate surrounding him but also the new and diverse artistic trends that proliferated during this time. In the last painting of the exhibit, "The Stables," we can see how Marc was influenced by the emerging Cubist movement. With its fragmented planes and kaleidoscopic shards of color, the viewer must squint hard to pick out the horses from the surrounding stables. The effect, once again, is a remarkable merging of subject and background into one unified consciousness.

After war officially broke out in Germany, Marc joined the army, filled with idealistic hopes that a war could transform society, could liberate it from the trappings of bourgeois culture. Only three years after painting "The Stables" and "The Poor Country of Tyrol," he was killed in action, dying embittered by the reality of war that surrounded him. Marc's horses, those wild and elegant and utterly essential beasts, cannot, then, be seen without a certain sense of poignancy; for all their vital strength, they are part of a very fragile vision. They provide a glimpse into an idyllic world, a universe made infinitely desirable by its unattainability.

Franz Marc: Horses is on display at the Busch-Reisinger through March 18, 2001.

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