‘I am seeking a feeling for the organic rhythm in all things, a pantheistic empathy into the shaking and flowing of the blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in the air ... I see no happier means to the "animalisation of art", as I would like to call it, than the animal picture. Therefore I treat it accordingly’ (Franz Marc, quoted in K. Lankheit, ed., Franz Marc: Schriften, Cologne, 1978, p. 98).
Formerly on long-term loan to the Sprengel Museum in Hannover (and more recently to the Franz Marc Museum in Kochel am See), Franz Marc’s Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum) (Children’s Picture (Cat behind a Tree)) was one of the most famous and popular paintings in the museum. Widely reproduced and muchloved, the appeal of this famous painting derives essentially from the charm, simplicity and directness of its imagery. In a wonderfully simple blend of vibrant colour and lyrical form, an orange cat is shown sleeping in a landscape behind the winding trunk of a blue tree. Painted between 1910 and 1911, this deceptively simple painting is one of Marc’s first great painterly triumphs in what would turn out to be his lifelong search to create a sophisticated and vitalizing art in which the basic elements of picture-making - form, colour and symbol - were to be synthesized into a single, harmonious and unified expression of spiritual resonance and joy.
It was in 1910 that Marc had first been made aware of the possibility of creating an art of spiritual significance through the work of the artists exhibiting at the Neuekünstlervereinigung, or New Artists Association, in Munich. Visiting their second group exhibition in September 1910, Marc wrote enthusiastically about their work and remarked how it displayed an ‘utterly spiritualized and dematerialized inwardness of feeling which our fathers... never even attempted to explore in a “picture”’ (Franz Marc, Letter on the Neuekünstlervereinigung exhibition, September 1910, in K. Lankheit, ed., op. cit., p. 126). This ‘bold attempt to spiritualize the “subject’”, Marc wrote, ‘is a necessary reaction... What seems so promising in the new work being done by the Neuekünstlervereinigung is that, in addition to their supremely spiritualized tenor, its pictures contain outstanding examples of spatial organisation, rhythm and colour theory... Their logical distribution of the plane, the mysterious lines of the one and the colour harmony of the other seek to create spiritual moods which have little to do with the subject portrayed but which prepare the ground for a new, highly spiritualized aesthetic’ (ibid.).
Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum) is a brilliant manifestation of these same principles of using ‘spatial organisation, rhythm and colour theory’ towards the ‘spiritualization’ of the subject that Marc had discerned in the work of the Neuekünstlervereinigung artists, now being put to use, only a few months later, in his own work. Indeed, joining forces with the Neuekünstlervereinigung, Marc would exhibit Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum) at their very next exhibition held in March 1911, from where it was acquired by Adolf Erbslöh.
In particular, among the Neuekünstlervereinigung, it was the paintings of Alexej von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky that Marc had most admired; it was with these two artists and his good friend from Bonn, August Macke, that Marc would found, later in 1911, an even more progressive and forward-looking collective which they called Der Blaue Reiter (the ‘Blue Rider’). The specific aim of this new, famously ‘Expressionist’ group of painters was to extend these same principles even further in the hope of creating an entirely spiritualized language of expression and feeling.
In Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum) Marc has sought to articulate this new language through a lyrical integration of all the painting’s constituent parts into one cohesive and near abstract pictorial expression of natural harmony. His deliberately simplistic use of the natural forms of the cat and the tree - here heightened by their deliberately opposing orange and blue colours - is employed as a vitalizing and lyrical presence within the more varied greens, yellows and reds of the landscape as a whole. They are also, as in his other animal paintings of this period, such as Blaue Pferde I in the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Liegender Hund im Schnee in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main or Spielende Wiesel, expressions of an innate rhythmic synthesis between natural form and compositional whole, part of what Marc described, for want of a better word, as his aim to create an ‘animalisation’ of art. This was his attempt, through the simplification of form, colour and symbol into a united whole, to create a visual synthesis in which a holistic vision of nature, animal, figurative and abstract form became fused into one coherent pictorial sense of an underlying spiritual harmony running throughout all Creation.
Aware of the inherent mysticism of his quest, Marc was, he wrote, seeking to reveal, through such work as Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum), what he saw as the ‘magic, sympathetic bond between the earth and the organic forms it has engendered’ in such a way that ‘earth and object’ became ‘blended together.’ Believing that he was living at a time when a ‘new religion’ was ‘arising in the country, still without a prophet (and) recognised by no-one’, he was, he said, seeking to create new ‘symbols for their own time, symbols that will take their place on the altars of a future spiritual religion’ (Franz Marc, quoted in D. Gordon, Expressionism, New Haven, 1985, p.131 and in ‘Geistige Güter’, in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac, London, 1965, p. 64).
Marc first articulated this mystic vision in an essay he wrote in 1911 entitled ‘How Does a Horse See the World’. In this essay he pointed to his belief that all animals perceived and understood the world through their own nature and the sensibilities unique to them. What they experienced, he believed, was an innate sense of union between themselves and their surroundings, an underlying sense of oneness, for which mankind, and Marc in particular, also yearned. What Marc sought was an art that articulated and expressed this universal union.
‘Is there a more mysterious idea for the artist than the conception of how nature may be mirrored in the eye of the animal?’ he wrote. ‘How does a horse see the world, how does an eagle, a deer or a dog? How poor and how soulless is our convention of placing animals in a landscape familiar to our own eyes rather than transporting ourselves into the soul of the animal in order to imagine his perception?... Does it make any reasonable or even artistic sense to paint the deer as it appears on our retina, or in the manner of the Cubists because we feel the world to be cubistic? Who says the deer feels the world to be cubistic? - it feels it as a deer, and thus the landscape must also be ‘deer’… I could paint a picture called “The Deer”. Pisanello has just done that. But I may also want to paint “The Deer Feels”. How infinitely more refined a sensitivity must a painter have to paint that!” (Franz Marc, quoted in K. Lankheit, ed., op. cit., p. 99).
It is this sense of the cat, the landscape and the tree, as both individual and also collective parts of a wider integrated whole, that Marc has expressed in Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum). Using lyrical arabesque forms to express the winding growth of the tree and the elegant, sleeping form of the cat, the curving lines of these two simple but contrasting elements articulate a shared sense of the burgeoning force of nature pulsing through the flat colour and simplified forms of the picture. Making strong use of the contrasting orange and blue masses to anchor the otherwise floating cloud-like forms of red, yellow and green that delineate the landscape, Marc has presented a poetic vision of his idealized view of nature and the oneness of all things through a painterly practice that approaches pure lyrical expression. ‘I am working very hard and striving for form and expression’, Marc wrote around the time he painted Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum). ‘There are no “objects” and no “colours” in art, only expression... That in the final analysis, is what really counts. I already knew that, but in my work I was always distracted by other things such as “probabilities”, the melodious sound of the colours, so-called harmony etc… But we should seek nothing but expression in pictures. The picture is a cosmos that has totally different laws to those in Nature. Nature is lawless because it is an eternal chain of coming and going (Neben-und Nacheinander)... I write as if I already know something about these...laws which I have dreamt about! But I am searching with the entire longing of my soul and with all my strength after them and I have a slight idea that they are already in my paintings’ (Franz Marc, quoted in G. Meissner, ed., Franz Marc, Briefe, Schriften und Aufzeichnungen, Leipzig, 1980, p. 53).