I’ve always had this curiosity about art, but feel I’m an outsider. I simply lack the wherewithal needed to unlock its portals. On the several occasions I’ve visited art galleys, whether in LA, Santa Fe, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Madrid, I tried vainly to stare paintings down, hoping a mindfulness approach might unleash an avalanche of revelation. A good many of the contemporary paintings could be hung upside down and I wouldn’t know the difference.
Scroll back to summer, 1978, and a graduate course in Southern California. A classmate invites me to go with him to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a treasure trove of art, in fact, the largest in the U.S. west of the Mississippi.
An hour in, I grow bored, regretting my hasty acceptance, hoping my friend will share my mood.
Another hour idles by when he tells me he’s exhausted. He’s looked at three paintings. Really, just three! “There’s just too much to take-in,” he says. What does he see that I can’t? Fetch me my sunglasses and tin cup!
Over the years, I’ve tried to close the gap, taking students to Aix-en Provence and its Cézanne vestiges, picnicking on a sun drenched afternoon with Mont Sainte Victoire, beloved haunt of many of his paintings, looming in the background.
We visited Arles, where moody van Gogh and tempestuous Gauguin put up with each other in the Yellow House in 1888, now gone, and take-in the local museum housing many of van Gogh’s renowned paintings.
As a literature student in grad school, I was familiar with the art poems of Keats, Browning, Rossetti and Ruskin’s aesthetics. Among modernists poets, Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Art, for all its brevity, haunts me almost daily in its depiction from Breugal’s “The Fall of Icarus” (1560) of human indifference in a context of suffering.
In the early 1980s, I invested in a Time Magazine multi-volume edition of art books, each volume with its illustrated slip case cover. Replete with photos, biography, and salient details of art masterpieces, it was the closest you come to the paint by numbers art kits I delighted in as a child.
When we moved to New Mexico in 2018, I grieved to have to donate these exquisite volumes to the performing arts school library where my wife previously taught. The moving cost was already mind-boggling and we had to jettison items replete with memory, especially my many books.
Why am I telling you this? Simply because art still engages me. Today, I came upon a poem by beloved poet Mary Oliver, commemorating German artist Franz Marc’s “Blue Horses” (1911) painting. I had never heard of him.
Franz Marc was a dedicated painter who pursued his craft assiduously, living several years in Paris and studying the great masters. Post impressionist Vincent van Gogh influenced him greatly in his broad brush strokes and vivid colors. Marc’s paintings often feature animals, especially horses, in combination with landscape to achieve an organic whole.
He shunned their objectification, contending for their mystical import: “I never, for instance, have the urge to paint animals ‘the way I see them,’ but rather the way they are. The way they themselves look at the world and feel their being.”
Marc was a color symbolist, colors having individual nuance: “Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”
This helps elucidate his latent purpose in “Blue Horses” (1911). He told his wife it dealt with his foreboding of an imminent war, though this was three years before Sarajevo, leading to the Great War that would result in a combined twenty million military and civilian dead.
In the painting, horses symbolize freedom and vitality: blue is the color of calm and peace and the male principle at the spiritual level; yellow, the female principle, gentle and sensuous; red, the inharmonious and conflictive.
Marc adored animals, seeing them as harmonious with nature and representing the good in the world.
In contrast, mankind has adulterated that natural tranquility through deceit and corruption. Only by reconciling with nature and art can Man find restoration to his better self.
Marc was right in his premonition of war and was called up. He would die of a shrapnel head wound at Verdun in 1916. He was 36.
Oliver’s poetry, like Marc’s art, is nearly always centered in nature, so scarce wonder Marc’s painting would lead to her moving poem tribute:
“FRANZ MARC’S BLUE HORSES”
I step into the painting of the four blue horses. I am not even surprised that I can do this. One of the horses walks toward me. His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm over his blue mane, not holding on, just commingling.
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain. I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses
what war is. They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc. Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me as if they have secrets to tell. I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what could they possibly say?
I may sometimes feel locked out when it comes to art, but as Oliver says so well, “Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” It explains why art engages me still.