Data: Franz Marc, in search of autonomy

 Bâle  |  29 September 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

A German Expressionist painter and a founding member of the Der Blaue Reiter group alongside Kandinsky, Franz Marc (1880-1916) has left behind a powerful body of paintings… A ride towards abstraction.


Franz Marc was born on 8 February 1880 in Munich in a protestant family. His father, Wilhelm Marc, was a painter and teacher. Before turning to the arts, Franz initially saw himself as a philosopher… or pastor. He entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, but quickly left the establishment, finding it overly strict. In 1950, he began encountering animal painters such as Jean-Bloé Niestlé, who led him to create his first horse sketches. At that time, he stopped all human representations in favour of animal forms, expressing an extreme type of naturalism which saw nature as an ultimate refuge for man’s sad social destiny. Paul Klee would write after his death: “He is more human, he loves more warmly, more strongly. He bends humanly towards animals. He lifts them towards himself.”

In 1907, a trip to Paris led him to discover the works of Van Gogh and Gauguin. It was a shock for him… The encounter would transfigure his painting, and his palette grew lighter. His bestiary turned wilder. In 1909, his meeting with another Expressionist painter, August Macke, was enlightening. The two artists joined the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM or Munich New Artists Association), founded in January 1909, whose president was a certain Wassily Kandinsky. Franz Marc exhibited his paintings with the group’s other members at the Moderne Galerie Thannhauser. However, the innovative ideas shared by Kandinsky and Franz Marc — who quickly became friends — created a rift in the group, between radical and more moderate painters. Kandinsky resigned from the role in January 1911 after the organising committee of the NKVM rejected one of his paintings (Composition V, 1911).

In summer 1911, Kandinsky started composing a collection of texts on modern art written by artists. He summoned — initially in secret — his friend Franz Marc to help carry out his project. The project needed a name, and it would be Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Their Almanach was published in Munich in 1912. In 1930, after the death of Franz Marc, Kandinsky would recall the origins of this name: “We both loved blue, Marc loved horses, and me riders.”

If Franz Marc loved blue, then it was because he saw it as a colour of spirituality —and austere virility. His colours were symbolic, like yellow, feminine, gentle and cheerful, or red, the colour of violence. Similarly, his attachment to the theme of animals created an original iconography whose symbolic value was unequalled in German Expressionism.

The first Der Blaue Reiter exhibition took place in December 1911 at the Moderne Galerie Thannhauser — at the same place and time as an NKVM exhibition. The “Exhibition of the Editorial Committee of The Blue Rider”, shown for the first time in Munich, then travelled across Europe to Cologne, Berlin, Bremen, Hagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Budapest, Oslo, Helsinki, Trondheim and Gothenburg. At the same time, Franz Marc stopped open-air painting and added to brighter, more subjective colours to his palette. In the same year, he began painting his famous blue horses.

1912 marked an even greater rupture. After discovering Italian futurism and the works of Robert Delaunay, he gradually turned towards abstraction and withdrew from three-dimensionality thanks to an increasingly intense chromatic range — we tend to see his first show of abstraction in his work Composition I, produced in December 1913. In 1914, he volunteered to go to the warfront. He continued to produce a few drawings and watercolours in his notebook. In March 1916, in Braquis, near Verdun, while making a horseback reconnaissance trip, he was hit by a shrapnel explosion. He died shortly afterwards, at the age of only 36 years.

Until 22 January 2017, the Fondation Beyeler, in Basel (Switzerland), is showing “Kandinsky, Marc & Der Blaue Reiter”. The exhibition gathers around 70 works and 90 objects — including Almanach — to illustrate the painting revolution occurring between 1908 and 1914, namely due to the influence of the two painters.

This exhibition is typical in that it exhibits the work of Franz Marc next to those of one of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century. Franz Marc is very rarely shown in the context of monographic exhibitions — barely 8 % of his exhibitions — and it is usually next to paintings by other Der Blaue Reiter artists that his paintings are exhibited in museums, mainly Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or August Macke. Similarly, in 2014, upon the 100th anniversary of the death of the two painters, the Kunstmuseum in Bonn hosted the exhibition “August Macke & Franz Marc, An Artist Friendship”; it presented, for the first time, around 200 paintings, highlighting the rich artistic relationship between the two painters.

The art world has trouble recognising Franz Marc’s true artistic autonomy, often confining him to his Der Blaue Reiter period and reducing him to his evolution towards abstraction. Yet Franz Marc has not been neglected by institutions. Since 1911, his works have featured in over 270 exhibitions, mainly museums (79 %). His exhibitions have distinctly multiplied since the start of the 2000s. In the 1990s, Franz Marc’s works appeared in an average of 2.5 exhibitions per year, around ten per year in the 2000s, and a dozen per year since 2010.

Geographically, Germany and the United States represent three-quarters of his exhibitions. Franz Marc, incidentally, has never been shown outside of the West. We can find his works in around forty public collections, mainly in Germany — the Museum Ludwig (Cologne), the Museum Folkwang (Essen), or the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Hamburg) —, in the United States — the LACMA (Los Angeles), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum or the MoMA (New York) — and in Switzerland — namely at the Kunstmuseum in Basel.

In addition, there is a Franz Marc Museum, set up in 1986 in Kochel am See (Germany), in a region where the artist often went to paint when he was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. This institution has nearly 150 works by Franz Marc, mainly from the painter’s estate and various donations.

As for the press, Franz Marc’s media coverage logically reflects the multiplication in his exhibitions: an average of around twenty articles per year in the 1990s, ten times more in the 2000s, and nearly 800 per year since 2010. Once again, it is in Germany that Franc Marc’s media coverage is concentrated: 60 % of articles about him are from this country, mainly in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, General Anzeiger or Die Welt.

It’s difficult to outline trends on Franz Marc’s results at auctions. 2007 seems to be the artist’s best auction year: even if few lots were placed on sale, their quality was irreproachable, and his Waterfall (1912) sold at Sotheby’s, New York for $18 million.

The years since continued to be auspicious until Franz Marc dropped from the peaks — a fall in interest or a lack of “raw materials”? In February 2008, the painting Horses in the Grass III (1910) sold at a record price of $24.4 million at Sotheby’s, London — at double its estimate. In June 2009, one of the last Impressionist paintings by Franz Marc, Jumping Horses, also from 1910, reached €4.4 M at Christie’s.

Since 1989, almost 600 works by the artist have been offered on auction. 468 of them have found buyers — producing an unsold rate of 20 %. In all, Franz Marc’s works have yielded $95 million, in other words an average price of $202,000 per lot sold and $163,000 per lot placed on sale.

Works produced between 1910 and 1913 are particularly popular, and represent a turnover of $92 million, no less than 96 % of the painter’s total! The 355 works by Franz Marc from these years to have gone on auction thus show an average price of $260,000. This era is obviously that of Der Blaue Reiter and the great ride towards abstraction, when Franz Marc completely unleashed his colours.

In Germany, many of the artist’s works have gone on sale in auctions. It should be said that Franz Marc was prolific and tried out several mediums: painting, but also prints, lithography, watercolours and pastels. It costs around $5,200 for an edited work — a lithograph or print —, $92,000 for a drawing, and $2.1 million for a painting.

While German auction houses have dispersed a great proportion of Franz Marc’s works — nearly 70 % — they account for only 5.5 % of his turnover. Grisebach heads the list, selling 75 works and pocketing around $2.33 million. Meanwhile, its rival Hauswedell & Nolte, selling the same number of lots, has produced a turnover of only $1.13 million. The two houses have followed completely different strategies: Grisebach has frequently undervalued its estimates — 51 % of lots have sold above their high estimates, as at Sotheby’s — whereas Hauswedell & Nolte has opted for overvaluation — 56 % of lots have sold below their low estimate.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s, once again, have shared the biggest slice of the cake. The first house, selling Franz Marc’s works for $52.8 million, represents 56 % of his market; the second, reaping $33.7 million, represents 36 %.

Franz Marc, despite his importance in the history of art, struggles to really make it as an autonomous painter. His market fluctuates a great deal and lacks vivacity —perhaps a consequence of the painter’s premature death. Franz Marc is little represented in monographic exhibitions, and his work is displayed more to illustrate a zeitgest, to indicate the “spirit of an age” leading towards the development of German avant-garde abstraction. Are his close ties with Kandinsky responsible for continually casting him in the shadows?



The Fondation Beyeler is devoting an exhibition to one of the most fascinating chapters in art history, one of the most exemplary in the evolution of modern art: Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”). Prior to World War I, between 1908 and 1914, a group of artists took advantage of the liberal cultural climate reigning in Munich to bring a fundamental reform to art. Their objective was to free colour from the obligation to represent, to emancipate the lines of contours, and to liberate surfaces from the illusion of figuration. It was no longer a matter of reproducing visible reality, but representing spiritual content…

“Kandinsky, Marc & Der Blaue Reiter”. Until 22 January 2017. Fondation Beyeler, Baselstrasse 77, Riehen, Switzerland.

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