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The Blue Horses of Our Destiny: Artist Franz Marc, the Wisdom of Animals, and the Fight of Beauty Against Brutality

Tragedy and transcendence in the search for the spiritual in nature.

“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” wrote Mary Oliver in one of the masterpiece from her suite of poems celebrating the urgency of aliveness, Blue Horses (public library).

In the bleak winter of 1916, in the thickest darkness of World War I, several enormous canvases dappled in pointillist patterns of color appeared across the French countryside, as if Kandinsky or Klee had descended upon the war-torn hills to bandage the brutality with beauty. But no. The painted tarps were military camouflage, designed to conceal artillery from aerial observation — the work of the young German painter, printmaker, and Expressionist pioneer Franz Marc (February 8, 1880–March 4, 1916), who had devoted himself to parting the veil of appearances with art in order to “look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature.”

Deer in a Monastery Garden, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Conscripted into the German Imperial Army at the outbreak of the war, midway through his thirties and just after a period of extraordinary creative fecundity, Marc found this improbable outlet for his artistic vitality during his military service. Unlikely to have had any practical advantage over ordinary camouflage, his colossal canvases are almost certain to have served as a psychological lifeline for the young artist drafted into the machinery of death.

Within a month of painting them, Marc was dead — a shell explosion in the first days of the war’s longest battle sent a metal splinter into his skull, killing him instantly while a German government official was compiling a list of prominent artists to be recalled from military service as national treasures, with Marc’s name on it.

The Fate of the Animals, 1913.

Among the paintings he produced in those two ecstatically prolific years just before he was drafted was The Fate of the Animals — an arresting depiction of the interplay of beauty and brutality, terror and tenderness, in the chaos of life. An inscription appeared under the canvas in Marc’s hand: “And all being is flaming agony.”

Destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1916, The Fate of the Animals was restored by Marc’s close friend Paul Klee, who painstakingly recreated the oil canvas from surviving photographs.

The Tiger, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
The Foxes, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Animals, Marc felt, were in many ways superior to humans — more honest in their expression of their inner truths, in more direct contact with the inner truths of nature:

Animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.

The Little Monkey, 1912. (Available as a print.)
The Large Blue Horses, 1911. (Available as a print.)

In 1910, just before he turned thirty, Marc became a founding member of The Blue Rider — a journal that became an epicenter of the German Expressionist community that included artists like Kandinsky, who had just formalized his thinking on the role of the spiritual in art, and Klee. At the end of that year, Marc began corresponding with the twenty-two-year-old writer and pianist Lisbeth Macke, who was married to one of the Blue Rider artists, about the relationship between color and emotion through the lens of music. Exactly a century after Goethe devised his psychology of color and emotion, Macke and Marc created a kind of synesthetic color wheel of tones, assigning sombre sounds to blue, joyful sounds to yellow, and a brutality of discord to red. Marc went on to ascribe not only emotional but spiritual attributes to the primary colors, writing to Macke:

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!

Further exploring the analogy between music and color, Marc envisioned the equivalent of music without tonality in painting — a sensibility where “a so-called dissonance is simply a consonance apart,” producing a harmonic effect in the overall composition, in color as in sound.

The Tower of Blue Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Twenty years after Marc’s death on the battlefields of the First World War, when the forces of terror that had fomented it festered into the Second, the Nazis declared his art “degenerate.” Many of his paintings went missing after WWII, last seen in a 1937 Nazi exhibition of “degenerate” art, alongside several of Klee’s paintings. Marc’s art is believed to have been seized by Nazi leaders for their personal theft-collections. An international search for his painting The Tower of Blue Horses has been underway for decades. In 2012, another of his missing paintings of horses was discovered in the Munich home of the son of one of Hitler’s art dealers, along with more than a thousand other artworks the Nazis denounced as “degenerate” in their deadly ideology but welcomed into their private living rooms as works of transcendent beauty and poetic power.

The Dreaming Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The title poem of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses embodies the original meaning of empathy, which became popular in the early twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. The poet projects herself into Marc’s painting The Large Blue Horses, running her hand gently one animal’s blue mane, letting another’s nose touch her gently, as she reflects on Marc’s tragic, tremendous life that managed to make such timeless portals into beauty and tenderness in the midst of unspeakable brutality:

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.

BP

Rare Butterflies and Unsung Pollinators: Gorgeous 18th-Century Drawings by the First Artist and Naturalist to Depict the Wing-borne Beauty of the New World

The world’s first pictorial glimpse of the strange and wondrous creatures that give our planet its scent and color.

A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundation of entomology with her art, and a century before the Australian teenage sisters Harriet and Helena Scott fomented one of the greatest triumphs of conservation with their stunning butterfly drawings, John Abbot (1751–1841) became the first artist and naturalist to document pictorially the wing-borne beauty of the New World.

Little blue argus butterfly (Papilio argiolus) and great American fritillary (Papilio passiflorae)

John was still a teenager when the Old World’s most venerated scientific institution, The Royal Society of his native London, took notice of his consummate entomological illustrations. While his trailblazing compatriot Sarah Stone was drawing the exotic animals of Australia and New Zealand, he was encouraged to leave for North America to help shed light on the insect corner of the continent’s largely unexplored living landscape.

Black and blue admirable butterfly (Papilio ursula) and chestnut-coloured butterfly (Papilio gilippus)

And so, in the summer of his twenty-third year, John Abbot made the arduous Atlantic crossing, heading for the capital settlement of the first British colony in North America: Jamestown, Virginia.

From the moment he set foot on American soil, throughout those difficult early years as a young immigrant, throughout the scientific disenchantment with a habitat far less biodiverse than he had expected, he persisted in collecting and rearing insects, studying and drawing them to send his painstaking artwork back to London.

His first two shipments were lost at sea. Still, he persisted.

As the air grew flammable with the spirit of revolution, he considered returning to London, considered following in Merian’s footsteps and voyaging to the butterfly paradise of Surinam, but ultimately decided not to give up on America just yet.

American brimstone butterfly (Papilio eubule) and large black and orange butterfly (Papilio archippus)

In the harsh winter of 1775, he traveled to Georgia to stay with a family he had befriended during the transatlantic crossing — the Goodalls (possible kin of Jane Goodall). Living in a log cabin 100 miles outside Augusta, Abbot immersed himself in the world of insects and birds, studying and painting the dazzling diversity of winged life.

Black-barred swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio ajax) and snake-root black swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio philenor)

As the months unspooled into years, he went on drawing. He served in the British army during the Revolutionary War and went on drawing, got married, had a son, and went on drawing, lost his wife and went on drawing, with a particular passion for the rarest and most neglected of species.

Black and yellow swallow-tail butterfly (Pailio troilus) and sassafras black swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio Ilioneus)

By the end of his long life, more than double the era’s life expectancy, he had produced thousands upon thousands of illustrations of insects, including the native plants they live on and pollinate into life, and several sets of birds. Today, his work is celebrated as some of the finest pictorial scholarship in the history of science and some of the finest scientific illustration in the history of art, held and exhibited in natural history and art museums all over the world. The best of it is collected in Abbot’s magnum opus. The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (public library), originally published in 1797.

My favorite of his drawings, both aesthetically and scientifically, are the several species of hawk-moth, Sphingidae — the unsung heroes of the pollinator world.

Painted hawk-moth (Sphinx vitis) and fringe-tree hawk-moth (Sphinx chionathi)

They are the hummingbirds of the insect universe, with majestic bodies up to eightfold the weight of the average half-gram butterfly and a mighty flight-motor reaching up to 60 wingbeats per second. With tongues up to three times the length of their bodies, they pollinate some of Earth’s most fragrant blooming plants — jasmine, gardenia, honeysuckle, wild rose, evening primrose.

Black and yellow-underwing hawk-moth (Sphinx tersa) and yellow-spotted tyger hawk-moth (Sphinx octomaculata)
Fan-tailed hawk-moth (Sphinx lugubris) and potatoe hawk-moth (Sphinx convolvuli)
Wild-grape hawk-moth (Sphinx pampinatrix) and pine or cypress hawk-moth (Sphinx coniferarum)
Yellow under-winged eyed hawk-moth (Sphinx myops) and wild-honeysuckle hawk-moth (Sphinx azaleae)

Complement with Stephen Jay Gould on what Nabokov’s butterfly studies reveal about the nature of human creativity and the fascinating natural history of how early pollinators gave Earth its colors, then revisit other stunning art from the golden age of natural history illustration: stunning snails from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of mollusks, psychedelic fishes from the world’s first marine life encyclopedia in color, the vibrant life-forms of the Great Barrier Reef from the first study of one of Earth’s most delicate ecosystems, and the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish rendered by the artist-scientist who coined the word ecology.

BP

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.”

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Half a century before Walt Whitman considered what makes life worth living when a paralytic stroke boughed him to the ground of being, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) placed that question at the beating heart of The Last Man (free ebook | public library) — the 1826 novel she wrote in the bleakest period of her life: after the deaths of three of her children, two by widespread infectious diseases that science has since contained; after the love of her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident.

From that fathomless pit of sorrow, on the pages of a novel about a pandemic that begins erasing the human species one by one until a sole survivor — Shelley’s autobiographical protagonist — remains, she raised the vital question: Why live? By her answer, she raised herself from the pit to go on living, becoming the endling of her own artistic species — Mary Shelley outlived all the Romantics, composing prose of staggering poetic beauty and singlehandedly turning her then-obscure husband into the icon he now is by her tireless lifelong devotion to the posthumous editing, publishing, and glorifying of his poetry.

Shelley had set her far-seeing Frankenstein, written a decade earlier, a century into her past; she sets The Last Man a quarter millennium into her future, in the final decade of the twenty-first century, culminating in the year 2092 — the tricentennial of her beloved’s birth.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney — an idealistic young man, more porous than most to both the deepest suffering of living and the most transcendent beauty of life — is the closest Mary Shelley, stoical and guarded, came to painting a psychological self-portrait. As the pandemic sweeps the world and vanquishes his loved ones one by one, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to seek safety “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquillity.” There, in the strange stillness, stripped of the habitual busynesses and distractions of social existence, he finds himself contemplating the essence of life:

How unwise had the wanderers been, who had deserted [the nest’s] shelter, entangled themselves in the web of society, and entered on what men of the world call “life,” — that labyrinth of evil, that scheme of mutual torture. To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days… Who that knows what “life” is, would pine for this feverish species of existence? I have lived. I have spent days and nights of festivity; I have joined in ambitious hopes…: now — shut the door on the world, and build high the wall that is to separate me from the troubled scene enacted within its precincts.

In consonance with Whitman — “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the American poet would ask across space and time, then answer: “Nature remains.” — Shelley’s protagonist finds the meaning of life not in the whirlwind of the human-made world with its simulacra of living but in the simple creaturely presence with nature’s ongoing symphony of life:

Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.

First Signal by Maria Popova

At the height of the deadly pandemic, nature seems all the more quietly determined to affirm the resilience of life — spring arrives with its irrepressible bursts of beauty, untrammeled by human suffering and a supreme salve for it. It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression, by surrendering to its sweep, that Lionel regains his faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.

A generation before the young Emily Dickinson delighted in the poetry of spring, Shelley writes:

Winter passed away; and spring, led by the months, awakened life in all nature. The forest was dressed in green; the young calves frisked on the new-sprung grass; the wind-winged shadows of light clouds sped over the green cornfields; the hermit cuckoo repeated his monotonous all-hail to the season; the nightingale, bird of love and minion of the evening star, filled the woods with song; while Venus lingered in the warm sunset, and the young green of the trees lay in gentle relief along the clear horizon.

From this open presence with the non-human world, Shelley’s protagonist extracts the essence of what it means to be human:

There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.

Mary Shelley

Complement with Rebecca Elson’s stunning poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Shelley’s contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning — a trailblazing poet who was dealt an inordinate share of suffering and who made of it inordinate beauty — on what makes life worth living, and the story of how young Isaac Newton’s plague quarantine fomented humanity’s greatest leap in science, then revisit the gorgeous advice on life Shelley’s mother, the trailblazing political philosopher and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, never lived to give her daughter, having died in giving her birth.

BP

Virginia Woolf on Finding Beauty in the Uncertainty of Time, Space, and Being

Calibration and consolation for those moments when it seems impossible that we should ever again recompose the world’s broken fragments into a harmonious whole.

Virginia Woolf on Finding Beauty in the Uncertainty of Time, Space, and Being

“How should we like it were stars to burn with a passion for us we could not return?” asked W.H. Auden in one of the greatest poems ever written — a subtle, playful, poignant meditation on what it takes to go on living — to go on making poems and symphonies and equations, to go on loving — when faced with something so much vaster than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe enfolding us or the sovereign cosmos of another heart.

A generation before him, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — another subtle illuminator of the human spirit in its cosmic dimensions — shone a sidewise gleam on the blunt edge of that eternal question of how to live with, and perhaps even find beauty, in the elemental uncertainty of time, space, and being — a question suddenly sharpened at times of especial uncertainty.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

In one of the most ravishing passages from her 1927 masterwork To the Lighthouse (public library | free ebook) — the most autobiographical of her novels — Woolf writes:

What after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollows of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flesh of tattered flags kindling in the doom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In the breaking waves, Woolf finds a staggering emblem of our struggle to hold the larger wholeness in view, in faith, when our worlds come momentarily disworlded:

It seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth.

Radiating from Woolf’s gorgeous words is the reminder that all states of mind, all territories of feeling, even those that feel most unsurvivable — perhaps especially those that feel most unsurvivable — are merely moments in time, and yet they are not islanded in the river of being but belong with the rest of the current, the current that springs from the selfsame source as our capacity for beauty, for transcendence, for experiencing ourselves as “the thing itself”:

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

If you have survived your life so far without reading To the Lighthouse, and suddenly find yourself with new orders of time, space, and being on your hands, this might be the moment to savor Woolf’s timeless treasure — the kind of book that leaves you feeling nothing less than reborn. Complement this particular fragment with an antidote to helplessness and disorientation from the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, then revisit Woolf on being ill, why we read, what it means to be an artist, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, and her transcendent account of a total solar eclipse.

BP

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