The first gallery introduces us to the two artists with work from the year before they met: Marc’s Siberian Sheepdogs (1909), a double “portrait” of the artist’s beloved dog Russi, and Macke’s charming Portrait with Apples (also 1909), a meditative, deeply affectionate portrayal of his pregnant wife Elisabeth. In the same gallery hangs the only oil portrait there is of Marc, which Macke completed in twenty minutes after the two new friends challenged each other to see who could paint the other fastest. (Marc’s portrait of Macke—“awful” according to Marc’s wife—has been lost.)
A brief comparison of the artists’ biographies hints at their eventual affinities. Marc was born in Munich in 1880 to Sophie and Wilhelm Marc, a landscape painter. He studied at the Munich Academy of Art but was dissatisfied with its commitment to naturalist realism. In 1903 he traveled to Paris and studied the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and on a return trip in 1907 was particularly inspired by van Gogh and the artists known as the Fauves, led by Henri Matisse and André Derain, who valued vivid color and expressive line over ordinary representation. Fascinated from a young age by animals of all sorts, Marc began to study their anatomy, in Munich and at the Berlin Zoo, and imagined them through the symbolic color palette of the Fauves.
Macke was born in 1887 in Meschede, Westphalia, the only son of Maria and August Macke, a building contractor and amateur artist. The family soon moved to Cologne and then, in 1900, to Bonn, where in 1909 Macke married Elisabeth Gerhardt. By then he had already studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and had traveled widely. In 1907 he also visited Paris, where, like Marc, he took note of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and then Berlin, where he spent several months in Lovis Corinth’s studio.
The great common adventure of the two men’s lives came in the summer of 1911, when Marc and Wassily Kandinksy, in association with Macke and Gabriele Münter, founded Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group; that December, in opposition to the New Artists’ Society of Munich, they organized the “First Exhibition of the Editorial Board of the Blue Rider.” (The following spring saw the publication of the only volume of The Blue Rider Almanac.) This loose but ardent grouping of artists formed the Munich pole of what came to be known as German Expressionism (the other pole being Dresden, where Die Brücke—“The Bridge”—had begun in 1905).
The Neue exhibit includes a painting by Marc that was part of the Blue Rider show: Ape Frieze (1911), in which a group of monkeys rushes headlong from the upper right to the lower left of the canvas against a background of rich vegetation and red, abstract pyramidal forms on the horizon. The Guggenheim’s famous Yellow Cow (1911) was also in the Blue Rider show; it was Marc’s tribute to his wife, Maria Franck, and their time in the town of Sindelsdorf, to which they had moved in the spring of 1910. The painting, its titular animal obscuring almost everything else on the canvas, including a small herd of red cows blending into a red field, also illustrates Marc’s fundamental theory of color: blue representing the masculine, yellow the feminine, and red the material (and often threatening). A work not included in Blue Rider (much to Macke’s vexation) is on display at the Neue: Woman Playing a Lute (1910), whose lush colors, pictorial depth, and sinuous forms, highlighted by a daring large white vase in the center of the canvas, remind one of Matisse’s Vence interiors of the 1940s.