In​ an essay entitled ‘Twenty Minutes from before the War’, Joseph Roth describes how in the 1920s French cinema audiences (and no doubt others elsewhere in Europe) lapped up compilations of pre-1914 documentary footage. They watched endless shots of military parades and goosenecked beauties with hats and fans and all-day hairstyles and floor-length dresses and gentlemen in full fig and they died laughing. The audiences may have thought that, in time-honoured fashion, they were laughing at their fathers; Roth understood that what they were actually laughing at was peace. ‘We knew that once we had the pleureuse, the steel helmet was only a matter of time, that there’s a straight path from the modesty veil to the gas mask, and from the pergola to the trenches.’

Much of the best imagery and circumstance of those years is taken from the German painters Franz Marc (1880-1916) and especially August Macke (1887-1914), currently the subjects of a joint exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie (until 20 June). Marc, born in Munich, and Macke, a Rhinelander (which in German connotes jollity), both tall, both dark, both handsome, though in other respects not similar types and not really similar as painters, were friends. In 1910, the visiting Macke (aged only 23!) saw an exhibition of Marc’s lithographs in Munich, and impulsively, with wife and cousin in tow, visited him the next day. Soon, the collector Bernhard Koehler, uncle of Macke’s wife Elisabeth, started buying Marc’s work; shortly afterwards he put him on a retainer for two years. The two, or the four, or the five or six (the Mackes had two sons) visited each other (Marc and Macke went to Paris together in 1912), exchanged letters, offered critiques of each other’s work, painted each other (Macke’s sharp, flaring likeness of Marc is included in the exhibition; Marc’s reciprocal portrait of Macke didn’t survive), proposed joint books and joint manifestos (this wasn’t so much Macke’s thing, though he felt upset to be left out). They were the beginning of a regional German artistic consciousness that was a southwestern or Bavarian or Alpine pendant to Die Brücke, the movement around Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in Dresden (the more westerly group was also the more international in outlook).

Franz Marc’s ‘The First Animals’ (1913)

Franz Marc’s ‘The First Animals’ (1913)

There is something almost painfully joyful about the efforts of these often desperately poor and short-lived young men to make new art in a philistine country, an art that wasn’t epigonal or merely watered-down Impressionism – as one of the rooms in the exhibition puts it, towards a ‘European avant-garde’ (in a European arrière-pays, I suppose). Marc and Macke are shown looking in the direction of Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, Rousseau, Sonia and Robert Delaunay. It wasn’t so much about France as it was about making oneself modern – which, at least up until the Second World War, was impossible without France. Nationalist painters and critics attacked Marc, Macke and their followers for selling Germany short, for being un-German. (During the German Occupation, I think rather wittily, Vlaminck deplored the ‘foreign’ influence on French art – Picasso, Chagall, Miro etc.)

It’s not surprising (and not wrong) that a show in France makes France the greater part of the story, but there are other ways of looking at Marc and Macke. One, suggested by the permanent exhibition at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, is as part of the mulch in which Klee and Kandinsky grew. Both Ks survived to enjoy long careers and internationally their reputations easily outgrew those of the Ms, though Marc has long been extremely popular in Germany. It’s less a matter of movements and labels though – the Blue Rider (brainchild of Kandinsky and Marc) or the NKVM (New Munich Artists’ Organisation) or Orphism, Futurism, Cubism – than of a soft and endlessly impressionable attempt to orientate oneself, like the tip of a plant wafting about for support and direction as it grows. The Orangerie exhibition is the record of an excitement, an aspiration; and the inclusion of such things as an actual Cézanne and a real Rousseau – this is what heft is, this is how clarity works – seems almost cruel.

This applies less to Marc, the older of the two, who was the first to find himself, and was perhaps anyhow the more fixed and limited character: beaky and whiskery; a Lawrentian type, I imagine; once intending to be a priest or philosopher, then a lover; almost too (physically) rough in his beginnings to promise much as a painter; a great walker and a countryman. He saw himself as a slow developer and predicted that he wouldn’t make much of worth before his forties and fifties. But in line, colour and subject he found what was to be his final definition by 1911.

He gave up human subjects – Lawrence again – and was a painter of animals, small and large, tame and wild. His simple and non-natural colours were bright and dynamic reds and blues and yellows, with white for action or potential, and his line the recurring curvilinear crook of a muzzle, a loin, a twisting neck, a kicking hind leg, a pair of ears. The forms are concave, as though knocked out of soft wood with a chisel. In a way, his animals are always the same animal: energetic but sleepily lovable (they seem to have closed eyes and adorable eyelashes), active but unthreatening, heroic, emblematic; not individuals but successful prototypes. Closer to God than our own vexatious species. (I would have thought in their boldness and their physicality – they seem to be all muscle – they might have appealed to fascists, but perhaps one shouldn’t try to second-guess such things.) Definitely, they were painted with love. It seems as though it would take a cow to paint such frankly glamorous cows, a fox such foxes, a deer such electrically gracile deer, a dog such a dog as Marc’s 1911 Dog Lying in the Snow, off-white in a jagged puddle of whiter snow under rocks and trees; the head resting thoughtfully, perhaps a little sadly, on the left forepaw; the long body tinged with buttery gold and edged and shadowed with violet and blue and green.

August Macke’s ‘Café by the Lake’ (1913)

August Macke’s ‘Café by the Lake’ (1913)

No such successful statement was given to Macke. His paintings seem mildly problematic, a little underwhelming, perhaps even banal. Macke doesn’t show up well in anything like a selective or competitive context, ironically because he was such an enthusiast and team player. His still life is forgettable next to Cézanne; his town scene murky alongside Rousseau. Once he leaves the very smallest formats (50 x 60 cm), his work loses intensity; in order to have any chance of success, a Macke picture seems to require a certain level of compression or miniaturisation. He is a delicate painter and is nothing without delicacy. And on top of that his vices: the embarrassing drapes, the vacuous skies, the indifference to texture, a prevailing airlessness and lightlessness. The subjects seem just that – subjects, and usually belonging to other people. And then he has no particular line, no ‘signature’, a Sunday painter’s lack of fixity. You see Macke’s Campendonk, Macke’s Klee, Macke’s Marc.

But perhaps that vulnerability, that penetrability, is the point. The paintings from 1912 show the encounter with Delaunay affecting him like a drug. He drew colour wheels, and his other pictures seem to have eaten them. Suddenly everything becomes crystalline and diagonal. Forms are simplified and, as it were, ritualised. Rhombs in diamonded structures. Faces are left blank. The colours are luscious: every painting has yellow, red, green and blue in it, as though painted on glass. And in fact, Macke does generate his own subject matter, though he isn’t afforded the room to show it here. It is something like leisure: an idealised version of bourgeois life as it presents itself in demurely theatrical displays. If it’s not Sunday, it’s at least always Friday in Macke’s pictures. A resort atmosphere. A gentle ostentation. Street scenes, promenades, people at the zoo or beside the lake, clumps of schoolgirls, or my own favourites: ladies in hats gazing at other hats in shop windows. Pure colours, hardly any patterns – the opposite of Vuillard, where everything seems madly eaten up with busyness (don’t get me wrong, I love Vuillard!). And radiating out from that subject, the characteristic Macke tone, like the tone in works by Jules Laforgue or Robert Walser: wistful, sweet, spectral, a little mocking. If his town parks have some aspect of the jungle about them, it’s not that he’s fetched the plants – like Rousseau – out of the greenhouse; it’s a function of his enriching vision.

In 1913 and 1914 Macke was moving at a great rate. In April 1914 he visited Tunisia with Paul Klee and another Swiss painter, Louis Moilliet, sketching and drawing. The watercolours he made at the time and on his return have a new mystique on top of the old plenitude and gaiety. Kairouan III (1914) is laid out in four or five semi-autonomous vertical strips; blue and an adjacent violet are played off against a thin yellow. There are minarets, a camel, green fans of trees, the ghost of wooden chairs and tables. Jug-Seller (1914) seems to offer 15 or 16 little lozenges of images pushed together around a central Arab figure of a shopper or stallholder, standing in a doorway or under an awning. It has the look of a medieval altarpiece of the life of Jesus or a TV dinner. Handled and unhandled jars appear up and down, left and right. There is a deep black panel in the top centre, but the overall effect of the piece is light, a bewildering jostle of information. The European pictures can be just as lovely. I hadn’t known Café by the Lake (1913), hard to read but irresistible, laid out again in verticals (three of them), one with boats and a viaduct, one with two hatted ladies under a café umbrella, and a little more enigmatic – mostly in dark jade and mid-blue – a table or bar counter with some black and white checks. The word ‘CAFÉ’ is written up in very large capitals on the warm orangey red of the picture. At the front, perhaps on a pier, a dog is asleep. There is a four-sided white post, perhaps for tying up at. It’s a classic red-blue-yellow-green painting. One doesn’t especially know how it hangs together as a single scene, but the painter doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem and neither do I.

Macke joined up as an infantryman on 1 August 1914 and died on 26 September at Perthes-lès-Hurlus in Champagne, one of the first big battles of the war. His body is buried in a mass grave. Marc, having joined up as an artillerist, didn’t hear about Macke’s death for another month. He wrote an obituary, describing Macke as ‘the one who gave colours the brightest and purest tone of us all’. Later, he was promoted to lieutenant, joined a cavalry scouting unit, and was given a budget of eight hundred marks for expensive clothes that he spent at Metz (Lawrence again!) and bought himself a chestnut mare, Eva. For a time, almost predictably, the war turned his head and he saw it as a bitter, good and necessary thing. Then he was hit by shrapnel at Verdun, one of 300,000 men to die there.

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