- Postcards from the Avant-Garde
I. The Traffic of Art
In 1916, the cultural historian and book collector Aby Warburg inherited a small sum of money. The legacy came with strings attached. Warburg had already spent much of his own share of the Warburg family fortune on his library project, but the inheritance was to be spent for his personal enjoyment only. Instead of purchasing printed matter, library supplies, or travel tickets, Warburg invested the money in art. His scholarly research had largely focused on Renaissance art and the afterlife of ancient Greece. Now, however, Warburg bought a painting by Franz Marc, a young Bavarian artist who, together with Wassily Kandinsky, had founded an art movement just a few years earlier, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Warburg's new possession did not depict any riders but horses; a purple mare and two young foals painted in vibrant red and blue. Marc had completed the painting in 1912.1
By the time of Warburg's purchase, this painting was a legacy, too. At the onset of World War I, Marc had enthusiastically joined the army; he envisioned a political renewal of Germany and fought for a renewal of art and artistic experience as well. In March 1916, however, he was killed near Verdun, not in battle, but in a mine-clearance operation. After his death, his widow Maria Marc took charge of his work and all sales.2 [End Page 575]
Warburg's enjoyment of his painting did not remain an entirely private one. In 1918, he referred to Marc in a scholarly lecture presented at the Hamburg Art Academy. On that occasion, Warburg described the ways in which an artist finds a specific form of communication that helps his public to grasp the idea of an object depicted. In doing so, Warburg named two successful artists that could not have pursued more different styles: Albrecht Dürer and Marc (see Schuster 23).
A few years after Warburg's private acquisition, the director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle, Gustav Pauli, purchased a painting by Marc for the museum. He bought Marc's painting of a blue ape, Der Mandrill (The mandrill) in 1919 (see fig. 1).3 World War I had ended, Germany was a republic now, and its public museums had begun to add to their collections. But while expressionist art was starting to receive more general appreciation, Der Mandrill caused much consternation and even a minor scandal. Crowds went to see the painting, but most viewers did not understand what they saw. Erwin Panofsky, a professor of art history at the University of Hamburg, reflected on this a few years later:
We only have to imagine a painting by Franz Marc instead of the Grünewald—for instance The Mandrill in the Hamburger Kunsthalle—to realize that, while we might have all the concepts to uncover the phenomenal meaning at our disposal, it is not always possible simply to apply them to the artwork in question. In banal terms, it is not always easy to recognize what is portrayed in the picture. We may know what the kind of monkey called a mandrill is, but in order to recognize him in this picture we have to be tuned to the principles of expressionist representation which govern the design here. Experience has taught us that this mandrill, which may appear innocuous today, could not even be identified at the time of its purchase (people went about desperately looking for his snout so as to get their bearings), since expressionist form was still so novel fifteen years ago.(Panofsky 471)
Like Warburg, Panofsky stresses the painting's "form," describing the mode of painting in his essay as a "Formweise" (Panofsky passim; see also Pauli, Führer durch die Galerie der Kunsthalle 211).
Marc completed Der Mandrill in 1913 at a time of intense epistolary and personal communication with the poet Else Lasker-Schüler. And while he had painted monkeys or apes before, the colorful mandrill was probably conceived both as an animal and as a reference to his friend. In September 1912, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff had published a portrait of Lasker-Schüler in the journal Der...