Tag Archives: Wassily Kandinsky

The King of the Cats

Franz Marc, Zwei Katzen, blau und gelb, 1912

Franz Marc, Zwei Katzen, blau und gelb, 1912

The College Art Association conference was held 3-6 February in Washington, D.C., which for what I study is not a very interesting art city in the way New York City is…and D.C. is thus also very expensive to visit, since the trip doesn’t include a few precious hours in the Met, MoMA, Guggenheim, Neue Galerie, and so on.

If conferencing, not museum-visiting, is to be CAA’s focus going forward, the organization should do what the German Studies Association does, and move the meeting to some less-costly destinations that still have good mass transit and more of a range of hotel rooms, like Las Vegas or Atlanta.

This conference I had a lot of tasks I actually had to do, and one I wanted to do, or I should say was very curious about doing, attending the Historians of German, Scandinavian and Central European Art, or HGSCEA, [formerly just HGCEA, but, I guess the Munch people or something…] meeting, which this year took the form of a dinner honoring the long-reigning and undisputed chief Kandinsky scholar, Rose Carol Washton Long of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Charles Haxthausen from Williams College.

I took the cryptic “honoring” on the invitation to mean “retiring,” which put me in mind of The King of the Cats. Miss Jessel’s “Haunted Palace” blog gives a nice account of the oral history tradition of this tale and its place in the folklore of the British Isles but, basically, without belaboring the point the outstanding extra-narrative moral for cat lovers and observers is probably that upon learning of the death of “the king of the cats,” all cats think that they are the designated heir to the throne.

So with respect to the fractious group of people who comprise known Kandinsky scholars…without an obvious heir apparent (to my mind there is not one, the once-promising regent having chosen their battles poorly), wouldn’t they all be prepared for anointment? As it turned out RCWL, in her very congenial speech, immediately made clear that while she was retiring from CUNY, she would not be relinquishing the reins to the Kandinsky dynasty anytime soon.

IMG_5340The “party” itself was quite a mysterious affair in that it did not appear as an “affiliated society” event anywhere on the CAA schedule (or the new Linked-In developer-sponsored) app, and was held in a small restaurant in Adams Morgan which was entirely closed except for the HSGCEA dinner. RSVP, affiliation, and credentials were thoroughly vetted at the door, and there were no nametags. Nametags would not have been much use anyway, since everyone went by a non-apparent nickname, like “Ricki” or “Mark.” And it was very dark inside the restaurant, Lillie’s (actual lighting shown), and you couldn’t see even across the room. So in other words it was pretty much how I expected it to be, except there wasn’t any kind of St. Bartholomew’s day type of fracas, duel, or mass feline exit through the fireplace.

As to my own paper and panel, I was thrown off my presentating game a little – not a lot, or not as much as I had expected or was undoubtedly intended – and got a lot of good questions, including some very specific queries from some more-than-casual idolators about Animalisierung, of all things, about the painting Tierschicksale, and about what I had specifically set out to talk about, affect/effect disturbing/calming animal images have upon human animal/human-animal empathy.

Basically my claim is that disapprobation toward animal abusers – such as generated by the film The Cove and the work of Sue Coe – is not as strong a motivator as true identification with the animal subject. Hence the focus on Franz Marc. This isn’t necessarily as obvious an idea as it seems, and bears more discussion and exploration (which is why I am writing about it).

Teenage Catalyst: Helmuth Macke and Franz Marc

Helmuth Macke, Drei Pferde, 1913

Helmuth Macke,
Drei Pferde,

“The ‘boarding school’ is in session,” Franz Marc wrote nervously to his friend August Macke.[1] Pining for company in the same letter, Marc nonetheless wondered if August should come and get Helmuth Macke, August’s young cousin, whom the Macke family had deposited some weeks earlier at Marc’s small apartment in rural Sindelsdorf. It was late November 1910. Marc would soon turn 31, and Helmuth was 18. Until Helmuth’s arrival, Marc had been working alone for some time. At the insistence of her concerned parents, Maria Marc had returned to Berlin. Marc was just beginning to see the slightest of incomes from his painting, but he was irritable and distracted. And now August, himself adjusting with his wife Elisabeth to the birth of their son, expected Marc to find ways to entertain a teenager.

Yet Helmuth was resourceful and clever. During the weeks in Sindelsdorf, (which become months and longer: “Helmuth’s fine, he’s still growing,” Marc reported the following summer)[2], Helmuth taught himself enough Dutch to communicate with Heinrich Campendonk; chopped wood and built a fence; practiced painting and drawing, befriended Marc’s dog Russi; and demonstrated a talent for cooking and baking. This latter skill commanded Marc’s particular favor. Animated but sympathetic, Helmuth provided stability and encouragement. By Christmas Marc had breezily informed August that Helmuth would be staying on.[3]

As the calendar turned to 1911, the chrysalis of Sindelsdorf opened and released a new Marc to Munich. Seeking a sophisticated way to celebrate New Year’s, Helmuth pointed Marc toward a performance of Arnold Schönberg quartets. The music had a vivid impact on Marc, which he reported with great excitement to Maria, August, and a new friend who had missed the concert – Wassily Kandinsky. At a the soirée given by Marianne von Werefkin at which Marc and Kandinsky met at last in person, Helmuth was at Marc’s side, and witnessed the twinkle in the eye of fate that became Der Blaue Reiter.[4]

After the party, Helmuth and Franz took the late train from Munich to Penzburg, laughing and marveling over their adventure as they walked jauntily through the falling snow back to Sindelsdorf. Neither traveler was concerned for the future at that joyful moment, and mercifully, neither could know what the future held.

Helmuth Macke died in 1936 when his small boat capsized in a sudden storm on Lake Constance, having given his sailing companion the only life preserver.

[1] Franz Marc, August Macke: Briefwechsel. (Köln: DuMont, 1964), 20-21.

[2] Marc and Macke: Briefwechsel, 42.

[3] Marc and Macke: Briefwechsel, 28.

[4] Dominik Bartmann, Helmuth Macke, (Recklinghausen: Verlag Aurel Bongers, 1980), 26.

“That’s the Way I Am:” Franz Marc on the Gurlitts and Art Dealing


Franz Marc, Rotes Reh und gelbe Antilope, 1913, Mischtechnik und Collage (Silberpapier)

Franz Marc, Rotes Reh und gelbe Antilope, 1913, Mischtechnik und Collage (Silberpapier)

So, Franz Marc always said he was from the future…he amended the amount of how far in the future to 50, then 150, then “about 150 to 500 years” as his own time ran out, and often when saying this was expressing a complaint about his contemporaries that in 2013 we could characterize as: Haters gonna hate.

The recent (and continuing unabated in München) interest over the paintings stolen and hoarded by Hildebrand Gurlitt and his son, Cornelius Gurlitt, has turned to a conversation about the meaning of ‘ownership’ of priceless artworks probably at the very, very, very least obtained via coercive means, and the role of art dealers in the procuring of art and broker of deals for artists.

I began to think about this discussion, in an earlier version though informed by perspicacity, in terms of Marc, who always had a lot to say about art dealers, ranging from the fatalistic to a kind of grudging respect to affection and back, in the case of Hans Goltz, to sputtering but somewhat amused indignation. It seemed beyond the realm of possibility that Marc had encountered the Gurlitts, as Hildebrand Gurlitt was not born until 1895. However I should learn never to  ‘bet’ against Marc’s knack for knowing somehow what someday would be meaningful. So, of course he knew the Gurlitts, in the form of the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery, through the eponymous owner and Fritz Gurlitt’s son, Wolfgang (the first cousin of Hildebrand), who had taken over the Berlin gallery and brokerage in 1907.

I was very excited to discover in revisiting Marc’s correspondence with August Macke the followng passage, in which Marc describes his interaction, with Wolfgang Gurlitt (the entire letter follows the break):

Sindelsdorf bei Penzberg, den 12. III. 13 Oberbayern

Lieber August,

… Das Beispiel Pechstein ist für mich typisch. Ich habe kein reines Gefühl mehr vor seiner Persönlichkeit. Mir ist höllisch Angst vor einer Popularität wie der seinen. Nolde tut auch keinesfalls mit, die ›Brücke‹ hat sich bis jetzt auch gesträubt. Aber was die tun, ist mir schliesslich auch nicht ausschlaggebend; wenn sie mittun, ist es ›der Not gehorchend, nicht dem eignen Triebe‹. Meier-Graefe hielt letzthin in München einen Vortrag, in dem er uns  alle als Geschäftsmacher bezeichnete und das Publikum aufforderte, es solle sich gegen uns verbinden etc.!! Und Cassirer denkt im Grunde genau so. Mit diesem Kreis will ich nichts zu tun haben. Ich habe die Erfahrung gemacht, dass, wer was von mir haben will, zu mir selber kommt. Wer sich für mich und uns alle interessiert, geht sehr wohl in den ›Sturm‹ und kauft auch dort; der ›Sturm‹ ist als Ausstellungsraum glänzend, riesengross, gutes Licht, dunkle Wände; Ich hab recht gut dort verkauft; tout Berlin braucht gar nicht hinzugehen, ist mir viel lieber so. Gurlitt bedrängt mich seit Monaten, ich soll doch nur bei ihm ausstellen; ich habe ihm jetzt durch Niestlé sagen lassen, wenn er mich durchaus für seinen Salon braucht, soll er mit kaufen anfangen. Auf dem Ohr scheint er aber taub zu sein; wozu soll ich dann bei ihm statt im ›Sturm‹ ausstellen? Ich war dreimal in Berlin (wegen Niestlé) dort und habe, glaube ich, einen einzigen Besucher dort getroffen. Legros war ebenfalls öfters in der Niestlé – und gleichzeitig Pechstein-Ausstellung und traf nie einen Menschen dort. Wenn was Interessantes dort ist, geht man hin, so gut wie in den ›Sturm‹. Tu Du, wie es Dir am besten scheint; ich will mich zurückhalten; ich fühle es als Pflicht gegen meine Ideen über das Ziel unserer Arbeit, das nicht über den Weg der Berliner ›Sommerausstellungen‹ zu erreichen sein wird. Du schimpfst oder lachst, – ich bin nun einmal so. Dass Du Kandinskys Vier Klänge ›schlecht‹ findest, ist mir vollkommen unverständlich; ich denke das Gegenteil: sehr gut. …

One of the things I always like about Marc is that although he is (vaguely) aware of the practical importance of money and often worries about not having any, neither can he be easily enticed or motivated by it (no one seems ever to tried the ‘immediate gratification’ tactic of food, alcohol, cigarettes ‘oder sonst was.’).  Also, for a mostly guileless and impetuous person, Marc could sometimes machinate fairly well…

Here Marc tells August of Gurlitt’s persistence in trying to have some dealings with him. On the one hand, Marc doesn’t really have any intention of bailing on the Der Sturm enterprise, but on the other, he wants to keep a line into Gurlitt on behalf of his longtime friend, neighbor, and fellow animal lover and animal painter, Jean-Bloé Niestlé, whose drawings of birds, while very skillful, fell somewhat outside the concern of the avant-gardes. He says Gurlitt actually seems a bit out of it in terms of critical culture, and that, further, no one ever seemed to be at the gallery anyway. It’s interesting that Marc expends a lot of effort trolling Gurlitt for  Niestlé, and also that (this is a long and very affctionate letter) that he takes the opportunity to inject a comment preemptively defending Wassily Kandinsky to August, who was not a fan: ‘I think the opposite: very good.’

Actually, in the next few months, the Gurlitt gallery, which had already seen the first and only Brücke group show in 1912, will have a very successful Henri Matisse solo show, followed in 1914 by consecutive spaces devoted to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and the handling of all of Lovis Corinth’s prints, and printing portfolios and catalogues of work by Pechstein and  Oskar Kokoschka. This probably goes to show that Marc was right to trust his instincts…

In any case it is quite amazing that Marc was very aware of the family who would one day sell Tierschicksale to Kunstmuseum Basel (still waiting to hear the explanation for that) and keep a Blauen Pferde hidden for seven decades. I picked this multimedia print work by Marc because it was made almost exactly 100 years ago, when Marc wrote this letter to August. It’s also very unusual for Marc in that it is truly a collage – the animals are cutouts from another print, and the brown spots are pieces of colored paper.
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Never Be the Same


Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Briefwechsel : mit Briefen von und an Gabriele Münter und Maria Marc

…After several years of seeking this book and not being able to find it, or finding it and having it be a million Euros or something, I was surprised to locate it in a German used bookstore’s inventory and not too crazily dear. It came in a package from Frankfurt am Main with probably the most Luftpost and other sticker adornments ever in the history of mail. I liked the wrapping so much that I just left the book in it for like a month and kept admiring it. Finally I actually needed to look something up and I had this week to open it. I was beyond thrilled to see that it had a dust jacket with fantastic 1980s typography and an X-acto bladed cutout of the “Show Him the Picture!” photo. The pages aren’t highlighted or written in, but they are pretty beat up and smell like bourbon and tobacco; I am always happy to find someone has really been reading a book hard.

I have been reading, listening to Bayern 2, and conversing with my two patient friends auf Deutsch a bit more diligently and was very pleased to be able to just sit down and read the book without too much difficulty, a far different experience from when first I met it. There are a lot more references to August Macke than I remember, and to AM’s influence…FM was always agitating on AM’s behalf.

I see from looking in Worldcat that this is something of a rare book (rarer now that the Little Mermaid dragged the USF copy to the bottom of the ocean or something – way to stay classy). I wonder why Piper never issued another edition, because in addition to the text of the letters there are extensive notations about the context of the references in the letters, and, very helpfully, descriptions of what was on the obverses of the postcards FM sent that he didn’t make himself. Between the paint, the content, and the terrible writing and incomplete addresses, FM was a real terror to the kingdom’s postal service – they regularly sent his stuff back or just handed it back and refused to deal with it – and they must have been relieved to see just normal “art” postcards such as people send today.


The other text I came across when I was organizing some shelves of books was this: The Decipherment of Linear B. I have always been very fascinated with cuneiform and with the work of Michael Ventris. The author, John Chadwick, was a friend and colleague of Ventris and though this is a very staid account of the process of identification and transcription of the cuneiform characters as both compared with Phoenician and Egyptian and deductively derived, Chadwick mentions Ventris’ untimely death in the introduction. I snatched this book from the trash and am very glad to have it now.

The Wilhelmine Insurgency

dem bayerischen Heere zum Ruhme

dem bayerischen Heere zum Ruhme

The Wilhelmine Insurgency

Franz Marc’s metaphysical visions were never far from him, occurring in “Two Paintings” in the confident statement, “What appears spectral today will be natural tomorrow.”[1] This sentence is in several respects characteristic not only of Marc but of that short period in European thought that runs from 1902 to 1914. It was the period in which Henri Bergson’s élan vital, and philosophical ideas about the confusion of immediate subjective experience, uncategorized and uncategorizable, became commonplace. As was the case with Wilhelm Worringer’s concepts, this discussion spread quickly into artistic and literary circles especially in France and in England but also in Germany. The rejection of scientific optimism touched a nerve. At the beginning of the 20th Century this was a mood that had been encouraged by the rapid introduction of new styles in painting, sculpture, and the applied arts that had accompanied each of the recent splits in the German art world, with one “Secession” leading to another, and with the “advanced” artists of one decade often becoming the reactionaries of the next. Throughout the 19th Century — especially in France — artists had been rebelling against the established academies and official salons and had looked for new ways of showing their work in rival salons des refusés.

In Germany by the end of the 1800s the situation had become dramatic. Many writers wondered about what was “German.” In the art world the question arose especially from the fact that, as Robin Lenman pointed out in an article preceding his book, Artists and Society in Germany, 1850-1914 (1997)[2], state and municipal patronage of the arts in Germany was on a particularly large scale, so that the relation of art to the state became of central importance for artists trying to make a living. Those artists who were not included, or who thought themselves inadequately represented in the large official exhibitions held in the major German cities, had economic as well as aesthetic reasons for creating new outlets for their work. As the painter Lovis Corinth remarked on joining the Munich Secession in 1892, “I had the instinctive sense that I could get ahead in this clique.”[3]

Akademie der Bildenden Künste München

Akademie der Bildenden Künste München

The first of these Secessions was that in Munich in 1892, the subject of a study by Maria Makela,[4] following to some extent the model of Peter Paret’s pioneering book of 1980 on the Berlin Secession. Similar movements were started in other German cities, for example Düsseldorf and Dresden. In Austria the Vienna Secession was founded in 1897.[5] Each of these movements had its own emphasis, but artists moved from one city to another. Many Munich artists went to Berlin at a time when the imperial capital seemed a richer and more dynamic place than Munich. In each center it had been the controversy over the showing of “foreign” art that had been one of the principal issues over which the split took place. The Munich Secession began by emphasizing naturalism in opposition to the sentimental scenes of Bavarian peasant life popular among local painters and patrons, but it too was protesting against the elaborate grandiose state portraits and history paintings of Franz von Lenbach and Anton von Werner, the director of the School of Fine Arts in Berlin.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century it was Munich that was the artistic capital of Germany. The collections that King Ludwig I had assembled before 1848 and the neoclassical buildings that housed them, the number of artists living and working in the city (some 9,000 by 1894, rising to 14,000 in 1907), the possibilities of café life — all made the Bavarian capital an attractive place for artists, both from inside Germany and elsewhere, as well as writers, visiting connoisseurs, and tourists. Bavaria retained a strong sense of character and traditions. The inhabitants of Munich were very conscious of the advantages to their city of its reputation as a center of artistic life. One of the issues that had led to the founding of the Secession was the invitation to international artists to send work to the annual exhibitions, though even among Secession members there was soon a movement to limit the number of such works shown: in 1893 more than half the exhibitors were foreign; as a result of complaints by Munich artists the number had fallen to 17 percent by 1908.[6]

The applied arts showed even more clearly than the work of the painters how diffuse and contradictory the modern movement had become.[7] Indeed one of the characteristics of “advanced” art in Germany at the beginning of the century was, as Seth Taylor points out in his study of the influence of Nietzsche on certain aspects of Expressionist literature, Left-Wing Nietzscheans, the tension between the artist’s desire to become socially involved in the problems of an increasingly urbanized, society and the equally strong desire to withdraw from the world into a rural Arcadia was never really resolved: “The longing for social involvement was contradicted by a libertarian desire to withdraw from society completely.” [8]

One of the new artists in Munich made quite clear what he thought of the Secession’s exhibition in 1902:

Hanging on the walls, it seems, are the “same old things” we saw long ago, only somewhat faded — pictures that take as their point of departure the literal repetition of nature and thus forfeit the luster of the artist’s intentions.


The writer was Kandinsky. Many of Marc’s and Kandinsky’s works and other important collections and donations are now housed, ironically, in the mansion that belonged to Franz von Lenbach, the wealthy painter of official portraits and one of the main figures against whom Kandinsky was reacting. A study by the gallery’s then-director, Armin Zweite, with biographies of the artists and commentaries by Annegret Hoberg on the paintings reproduced, The Blue Rider in the Lenbachhaus, Munich (2000) provides an indication of the riches of the collection which also includes works by Münter, Macke, Alexei Jawlensky, and Paul Klee.

Marc provided a link between Munich and Berlin and between the Blaue Reiter and the very different artists of the Brücke and the circle around the Berlin dealer and critic Herwarth Walden’s literary and artistic weekly, Der Sturm. Marc collaborated with Walden to organize the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon in Berlin in 1913. There, too, Marc met Walden’s former wife, the poet Else Lasker-Schüler. This relationship produced Marc’s Postcards to Prince Jussuf. The originals of these twenty-eight small paintings, all featuring animals, sent by Marc to Lasker-Schüler between 1912 and 1914, are now divided between the Bavarian state collections and the Nationalgalerie in Berlin and are reproduced together in a book by Peter-Klaus Schuster, which tells in a preface much about this collaborative project.[9]

The Symbolists at the end of the 19th Century had been concerned with “the Spiritual.” In France this had involved some of them with the Rosicrucian revival of the 1890s, and the Symbolist heritage left a strong imprint on Munich painters and writers, among them the criminally undertranslated poet Stefan George. They were interested in the new spiritualist movements, especially Theosophy, whose apostle Rudolf Steiner was read by Kandinsky. The Russians in Munich brought with them their own tradition of mystical speculation.[10]


[1] Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, The Blaue Reiter Almanac, 104.

[2] “Painters, Patronage and the Art Market in Germany, 1880-1914,” Past and Present, No. 123, May 1989.

[3] Peter Paret, The Berlin Secession: Modernism and Its Enemies in Imperial Germany, (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980) 269.

[4] Maria Martha Makela, The Munich Secession: Art and Artists in Turn-of-the-Century Munich, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[5] Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Knopf, 1980), 200-209.

[6] For a valuable detailed account of the economic situation of Munich artists, see Robin Lenman, “A Community in Transition: Painters in Munich 1886–1924,” in Central European History Vol. 10, March 1983. See also his “Politics and Culture: The State and the Avant-Grade in Munich, 1886–1914” in Richard Evans, ed., Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (Barnes and Noble, 1978).

[7] The monograph by Annelies Krekel-Aalberse, Art Nouveau and Art Deco Silver (1989), illustrates the tension in trends, and also shows, in such objects as a silver caviar dish or a tea caddy set with amethysts, the class for whom artisans were working.

[8] Seth Taylor, Left-Wing Nietzscheans: The Politics of German Expressionism 1910–1920 (Walter de Gruyter, 1990).

[9] Peter-Klaus Schuster, Franz Marc, and Else Lasker-Schüler, Franz Marc, postcards to Prince Jussuf, (Munich: Prestel, 1988).

[10] For a discussion of these see Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (Oxford University Press,1980), especially Chapter 2.