Paul D. Wilke
An Introduction to German Artist August Macke
August Macke's Early Years
One of the most talented and forgotten painters of the early twentieth century was German artist August Macke (1887-1914). His promising career was cut tragically short in the early months of the Great War. However, in the years leading up to his death, Macke developed a distinct style that made a lasting mark on the art world. This post will look at his short life, some of his best paintings (in my opinion), and a little bit about his artistic philosophy.
August Macke was born on 3 January 1887, the third child of civil engineer Friedrich August Macke (1845-1904) and Mary Florentine Macke (1848-1922). He spent his early years in Meschede, a small town in today's North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. The family moved to Cologne in 1897, where Macked attended the gymnasium (elementary school). The family relocated one more time to Bonn in 1900, where Macke went to high school.
In 1903, when he was only 16, he met his future wife, Elisabeth Gerhardt, the daughter of a prominent Bonn businessman. By his death in 1914, Elisabeth would give him two sons and sit for over 200 portraits, helping Macke hone his skills as a painter without the financial burden of paying for models.
Macke's artistic genius began emerging during his teen years. In 1904, he left high school a year early to enroll at the Royal Academy of Art in Düsseldorf. However, the 19-year-old left in 1906, frustrated at the Academy's uninspiring emphasis on copying existing works rather than promoting the exploration of original artistic ideas. Instead, he enrolled in night courses that gave him the creative outlet he needed to experiment with different, more contemporary styles. Meanwhile, he remained connected to the arts in other ways during this early period, working on costume and stage design for the city theatre (Cohen 7).
Elisabeth's rich art-collecting uncle, Bernard Koehler, funded Macke's artistic field trips to Italy and Paris. These proved formative in his development.
For example, a 1907 trip to Paris exposed Macke to the French Impressionists, whose style he began emulating for the next few years. Macke built on this experience by studying with the German Impressionist painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
Macke then spent the next several years (1906-1909) honing his art, traveling again to Paris, Italy, and Germany, meeting with other artists, and exchanging ideas. From this period, his paintings capture landscapes from his native Rhineland region and portraits of Elisabeth, who he finally married in 1909. This period's paintings highlighted Macke's genuine technical skills and the early influence of the Impressionists. He was only 22.
By 1910, however, Macke's painting began to show signs of innovation and experimentation. The standard Impressionist landscapes and portraits he had been painting over the previous few years transitioned to something more avant-garde.
He spent his time engaging other artists, especially at Munich's New Association of Artists (Neue Künstlervereinigung München). These interactions shifted his focus to the more fashionable "Expressionism," an art movement that emerged from the earlier Impressionists around 1905 in Germany.
Macke found himself perfectly positioned to ride this new wave in art. Whereas the Impressionists (Monet, Sisley, Degas, Pissaro) had sought to capture an "impression" of a moment which they would then paint in vivid colors (Monet's Water Lillies, for example), the Expressionists put less emphasis on capturing photo-like realism and more on using bright and contrasting colors to provoke spiritual reactions.
Details were less important here than the emotional response provoked by the painting. Think of Edvard Munch's Scream as an excellent early example of what the Expressionists were getting after. The vaguely humanoid figure in the painting is indistinct, as are the figures in the swirling background. Nevertheless, the emotions of existential alienation and anxiety are hard to miss. As a work of art that skews toward the abstract, it still manages to convey a powerful emotional message not diminished one bit by the presentation's stark simplicity. This is great art. From here on to the end of his life, Macke's painting would move in this direction, with a few interesting detours along the way.
Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Movement
"To hear the thunder is to perceive its secret. To understand the language of forms means to be closer to the secret, to live." - August Macke
First, in 1911 and 1912, Macke became a part of "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider) movement, featuring several prominent artists like Wassily Kadinsky (1879-1944), Franz Marc (1880-1916), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Albert Bloch (1882-1961), and Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941). The driving ideas of the Blue Riders were the expression of spiritual and emotional ideas through art. The faithful reproduction of objective forms gave way to expressing more abstract representations of reality. Spontaneity and intuition were the characteristics emphasized by the Blue Riders for conveying these ideas. In this way, contrasting color schemes and geometric forms could express universal symbolic truths.
Macke's essay Masks was published in the Der Blaue Reiter Almanac and articulated some of the group's core philosophical ideas about art as well as his own.
According to Macke, art becomes an expression of an artist's soul via the interpretation of some objective form in the world. A form, to be clear, is just another word for Some Thing in the world. However, some forms are so abstract that they defy easy objectification. Show me a table or a tree and you can, no problem. But if I ask you to show me love as a thing, or fear, or hate, then it becomes problematic.
Love and fear are nouns, indeed, but they are not objects in the world like tables and trees, even if in some other sense they are just as "real." This is where art steps in to fill the interpretive gap. The interpretations of the artist offer ways to give substance to these abstract forms. Thus, a dialectic emerges between man and nature, between reality as we experience it subjectively and how it actually is. The artist's job is to build a bridge between the abstract experiences of human consciousness (love, hate, fear, etc.) and the raw natural world in ways that resonate universally. Great art does this.
He wrote, "Every genuine art form is a manifestation of our inner life. The outside of the art form is its inside. Each authentic art form emerges from a reciprocal interrelation of man and the factual materials of the forms of nature, of the art forms." (Cohen 80)
And, "The thunder expresses itself, as does the flower; each force manifests itself as a form. And so does the human being. Something is driving him to find the words for concepts, the evident from the unclear, conscious from unconscious. This is his life, his creation. Like human beings, forms change and develop anew. Blue only becomes visible via red, the size of the tree via the smallness of the butterfly, the youth of the child via the age of the old man. One and two are three. The formless, the infinite, the zero remains unfathomable." (Cohen 77)
The language here is a bit woolly and ambiguous, which is not surprising from an artist trying to express abstruse concepts that do not easily lend themselves to words. In a way, that's the point of his art: to convey visual ideas and truths that transcend spoken language.
Macke believed that each form's distinctness depends on other forms. Colors do not exist independently but as contrasts with other colors and as defining characteristics of forms. A dark blue stands out next to a crimson red; dull brown contrasts with bright green. Forms are therefore distinguished by how they relate to each other. A form lacks definition without something else to provide contrast.
In a painting, the sum of these individual elements (forms) merges to create a work of art that communicates something universal from the artist to the viewer. What all this meant in practice was a style of art that traded granular detail for abstract expression. The most talented artists of this era - and Macke counts among them - had the gift of taking shape and color and creating something that communicated ideas and concepts.
Macke's paintings beginning around 1911 began to build on this new artistic philosophy.
Still, by 1912, he was beginning to move away from Blue Riders. Writing to his friend Franz Marc in 1913, Macke expressed a growing disillusion with the work of the group's leader, Kadinsky.
"My painter's opinion is that Kandinsky has gently passed us by, because Delaunay's work was hung next to his, and therefore showed how vivid color can be, in comparison to an incredibly complicated, but dull, composition of colored dots. It is enough to make one want to cry from disillusion and shattered hopes. A tabletop has more mystery than all of his paintings combined! They no longer speak to me as they once did." (Cohen 371)
It didn't take him long to find another artist to admire. This happened during a visit to Paris in 1912. There he met the talented Robert Delaunay, whose colorful Cubism greatly impressed the young German.
Who was this Robert Delaunay that could eclipse the great Kadinsky? Delaunay was an up-and-coming Parisian artist who took the Blue Riders' ideas of color and abstraction to the next level. Delaunay's works from this period were widely admired, not only by Macke, but by others such as Paul Klee, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Franz Marc. Delaunay seemed to capture in exquisite form what the Blue Riders were after; that is, color as a kind of non-verbal language communicating emotions through the medium of art. He called his style of art "Orphism" and for a few years, it took the art world by storm.
Here are two examples of Delaunay's work from this time to give you an idea of what it looked like at this time:
And here are a few post-1912 works that I believe show the influence of Delaunay on Macke's painting.
Note that Macke doesn't go wholly abstract or "Orphist"; his paintings from this period are notable because they mix abstraction with elements of the living world. Thus, amidst all the contrasting colors and shapes, good old life - whether human, animal, or plant - still anchors the artwork. This set him apart from others like Kadinsky (post-1910) and Klee, whose impressive careers would be defined by abstraction.
However, Macke kept one foot in objective reality, though it is worth speculating what directions his art would have taken if he had not died in 1914. Perhaps he would have embraced abstraction as many of his contemporaries did. Maybe, but it's just as likely that Macke would have forged a new road, taking what he liked from others and incorporating it into his own unique style of painting. We'll never know.
In contrast, Paul Klee lived on until 1940, producing his best work after the Great War. Moreover, Wassily Kadinsky's prolific career continue until December of 1944, with arguably his best years ahead of him after the Great War.
Macke's Last Years - 1912-1914
"The intersection of two styles will create a third, new style." - Macke
Nevertheless, from 1912 until his death in September 1914, Macke produced some of his greatest works. His style was a mix of the Impressionists of his early years, the colorful and dynamic aesthetics of the Blue Riders, and Robert Delaunay's effective use of color and geometry in the service of abstraction. This hodge-podge of different but related artistic styles gave Macke's painting a unique, modern feel. His later paintings captured people strolling in dream-like parks, looking at store windows, and doing other everyday things. Unlike his friend Franz Marc, who painted colorful animals in a similar Expressionist style, Macke painted what he saw, which tended to be familiar, commonplace settings.
In April of 1914, Macke traveled to North Africa with fellow artists Paul Klee and Louis Moilliet. The paintings inspired by this trip represented the culmination of Macke's artistic development, synthesizing all of the various elements and schools of art that he had experienced in the last few years. What was different about these paintings, however, was the luminosity and brightness. Sunshine colors - yellow, orange, and earthy tones - take center stage, giving the viewer a glimpse of the artist's experiences in North Africa.
The Great War and the End
“I would consider myself incredibly lucky if I was to return from this war. I think about all the beautiful things that I have witnessed and that I have you to thank for.” - Macke's Letter to his wife, August 1914
One of his last paintings, Farewell, depicts the gathering gloom of war. In retrospect, the image radiates foreboding. We know how it all played out, with over 8.5 million dead when the Armistice was signed in 1918. Macke was among those extinguished in that stupid, wasteful conflict.
Tragically, Macke wasn't conscripted but volunteered in the first week of the war to serve as a German infantryman. Perhaps he was caught up in the general nationalist fervor that burst forth at the outbreak of the war. Most likely, everyone expected the conflict to last only a few months. That's what had happened before, in 1870-1871, for example, and that's what would happen this time. Modern wars were supposed to be quick and decisive affairs.
But the Great War was different; it was a meat grinder, decimating an entire generation of Europe's young men. Macke died on 26 September 1914 before the horror of prolonged trench warfare set in. He was spared that, at least. His dear friend and fellow artist Franz Marc was also killed two years later at the Battle of Verdun.
The colors in Farewell are muted with shadows looming around faceless crowds. Gone are the sun-soaked and warm colors from Tunisia earlier that year. The feeling conveyed here is dark and foreboding, unlike the bright and warm optimism emanating from so many of Macke's other paintings.
It's a shame that the world lost an artist like August Macke when he was just hitting his creative stride. Who knows what masterpieces were never created because he died pointlessly in that futile war?
Still, what we have from his short career is impressive enough.
And that will have to do.
Macke, August; Cohen, Walter. August Macke. Parkstone International. Kindle Edition.