Like the Impressionists before them, Marc and his colleagues August Macke and Heinrich Campendonk wanted to escape the city and sought inspiration from the countryside. In 1910, attracted by the bucolic splendor and the abundance of farm life, Marc moved near Sindelsdorf, a small town on the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. It is here that Marc’s wonderfully colorful artistic menagerie came to dominate his oeuvre. His depictions of dogs, deer, cows and horses, grazing or at rest, shown largely in groups within a rhythmically painted landscape, possess a sublimated, timeless character unique to Marc’s work. The artist sought to replace the realistic depiction of individual animals with more generalized, stylized representation and shifted from naturalistic to symbolic coloration with the aim of capturing the essence of the animals he painted. Marc’s mature style had aesthetic similarities to the wildly colorful compositions of the Fauves, the fractured and faceted works of the Cubists, the lyrical abstraction of Robert Delaunay’s colorful Orphism and the energized, linear compositions of the Italian Futurists. Through the fragmentation of the compositional elements of Kühe into colorful facets, rhythmically interlaced and overlapped, Marc is able to animate and unite his image in a highly successful manner that closely connects the animals depicted to their surroundings.
In Der Blaue Reiter Almanac, the 1912 publication co-edited by Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, the authors promoted their new artistic movement. The premise behind this new type of painting is explained by Marc Rosenthal: "The key to the Blue Rider was the belief in an approaching new epoch, one that was anti-materialist and spiritually inclined. Like the earlier German avant-garde known as Die Brücke, which had already announced a break with contemporary culture, the artists believed in a new world community and an altered definition of humanity. But Blue Rider thinking was in contrast transcendent. Especially pertinent was the desire, inherited from Romanticism, for unity with the universe and a cosmic system of reference points" (M. Rosenthal, Franz Marc in America, Berkeley, 1979, p. 23). Marc in particular championed freedom of expression and a spiritualized, somewhat mystical, approach to representing the natural world, seeking to liberate painting from the literal, figurative manner in order to reach a symbolic dimension, which unified man with the forces of nature, creating a universal, harmonious unity.
Marc was drafted into the German army at the outbreak of the First World War and was tragically killed during the Battle of Verdun, a mere four years after completing Kühe. The surviving artists of Der Blaue Reiter including Kandinsky and Paul Klee, acknowledged their debt to the spiritually based, reductionist aesthetic that Marc had pioneered. In an article published in 1936, Kandinsky remembered Marc as an artist who “had a direct, intimate relationship with nature like a mountaineer or even an animal.… Everything in nature attracted [Marc], but above all, the animals. Here there was a reciprocal contact between the artist and his ‘models,’ and this is why Marc could enter into the lives of animals; it was their life that gave him his inspiration.… What attracted him was the great organic whole, that is to say, nature in general. Here lies the key to the original, individual world Marc created and which others have tried to re-create, but without success” (W. Kandinsky, Cahiers d’Art, nos. 5-10, Paris, 1936, reprinted in English in Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Drawings and Watercolors (exhibition catalogue), Hutton-Hutschnecker Gallery, New York, 1969, p. VIII). Marc’s strong desire to show nature in its unfettered, starkly simplistic state is powerfully present in Kühe. Through his symbolic use of color, his works are imbued with a profound sense of emotion and purpose and it is for this reason that Marc was instrumental in redefining the portrayal of the natural work in art. His creative efforts and philosophies adopted by the Blaue Reiter group, ultimately resulted in some of the most extraordinary pictures produced in central Europe in the years before the war.
Kühe appears to have been executed over an un-related lithographic print, thought to be Hirschpaar (1907; Hoberg & Jansen no. 10). It has been suggested that Marc executed the present composition over the printed medium due largely to the appealing nature of the compressed paper—the printer's plate marks remain visible in the sheet's margins—which allowed for greater sharpness and clarity to the vibrant pigments applied.
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