Franz Marc painted the expressionist work The Tower of Blue Horses in 1913. It was bought by the Berlin National Gallery after World War I and exhibited until 1935, when it was taken from the Gallery by the Nazi’s. Different accounts suggest that the painting may have survived the second World War but its eventual fate remains a mystery. One preliminary sketch survives – a postcard to the poet Else Lasker-Schüler – as well as a low-quality image of the painting. Given the type of information available on The Tower of Blue Horses, as well as the fact that Marc’s paintings tended to have little relief, its re-creation was carried out almost entirely through physical, rather than digital, means.
Various versions of Franz Marc's work were created
Painting The Tower of Blue Horses
The low-quality image of the painting was blown-up and printed on canvas. This print was used as the base for the physical re-creation and guided Factum’s artist in painting. However, although the forms were relatively easy to capture, the colour proved more complicated. Several versions were painted but none seemed to reproduce the brilliant colour of Marc’s work.
Colour test for Franz Marc's work
The decision was taken to travel to Germany in order to see more of Marc’s work up-close. The Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich holds an extensive collection of German Expressionist works, including several by Marc, one of which is the postcard sketch for The Tower of Blue Horses. Factum’s artist closely studied Marc’s palette and the way he used colour. Physical colour references were also taken as another way of studying Marc’s tones. This means that ‘colour-sticks’ – literally strips of paper painted in a large array of colours and shades – were photographed alongside corresponding colours on Marc’s paintings. Different colours on a painting or object are matched to a colour stick of the same shade; a photograph is taken to record the position of this colour on the painting. Although it is possible to digitally record ‘true colour’, physical colour references really ensure accuracy in different lighting conditions.
Digital retouching and finishing the painting
At the studio in Madrid, the best version of The Tower of Blue Horses thus far was photographed at high-resolution. Then this image file was digitally retouched in Photoshop using the colour information obtained in Munich in order to bring the colours of the re-creation closer to Marc’s colours. The retouched image file was printed onto canvas.
Certain areas with too little information were finished on this new physical version. Then the re-creation was photographed and re-touched once more to make sure every aspect of the painting, came together in the final version.
This final image was digitally printed onto a canvas prepped with gesso. Since Marc’s paintings tend to have little relief, the gesso in this case was not texturised in any way. The final print of The Tower of Blue Horses was varnished with wax and given a light glaze in order to impart a more homogenous tone to the colour, one that was closer to Marc’s paintings.
The final reconstruction
The recreations of The Tower of Blue Horses by Franz Marc on the right and the Portrait of Winston Chruchill by Graham Sutherland on the left, on display at Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, 2019
The Tower of Blue Horses - Franz Marc – painted in Sindelsdorf, Bavaria in 1913
Last seen in Berlin in 1945 or 1948
Franz Marc was an idealistic German painter who rejected modern materialism and sought answers in the divinity of nature. His richly symbolic Tower of Blue Horses, a vortex of animal power and intelligence, is his masterpiece.
Marc grew up in Munich and spent most of his life as a painter in rural southern Bavaria. He always painted animals and in his early years he taught drawing classes in animal anatomy. During his late twenties he met a number of experimental artists including August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky and in 1911 they collaborated on an exhibition, an expression of their shared belief in primitivism, the spiritual associations of colours, and an instinctive approach towards painting. They called themselves, Die Blaue Reiter, (The Blue Rider) – ‘Blue’ was the colour of spirituality and truth and masculinity, ‘Rider’ because of Marc’s passion for horses.
The Tower of Blue Horses began life in miniature form as a post card sent by Marc to his friend the poet Elsa Lasker-Schuler and offers no one simple interpretation. It’s a powerful symbol of hope and energy but in 1913 it also had a darker resonance. There were many in Germany who believed that Europe needed dramatic change and the manifesto of Die Blaue Reiter movement declared:
“Today art is moving in a direction our fathers would never ever have dreamed. We stand before the new pictures as in a dream and we hear the apocalyptic horsemen in the air. There is an artistic tension all over Europe.”
Die Blaue Reiter was shortlived, when war broke out Kandinsky was forced to return to Russia and Marc and Macke joined the army. Marc was excited, he saw the war as necessary for the spiritual renewal of Europe and he wrote optimistic letters to his wife from the battlefield. On March 4th 1916 the 36 year old Franz Marc rode out on a reconnaissance mission near the front line at Verdun. Twenty minutes later his, riderless horse returned to the camp spattered with his blood.
In death Marc was treated as a national hero and in 1919 the German government purchased ‘The Tower of Blue Horses’ for the new national contemporary art gallery in Berlin, where it became a centrepiece of the collection. But as German politics soured in the 1930s, so did the taste in art. When the Nazis came to power they began a purge of modern art, using the motto “Keeping German Art Pure” and in 1937 ‘The Tower of Blue Horses’ was one of hundreds displayed in an exhibition called ‘Degenerate Art’, to which the public was invited to mock and jeer. Marc’s regimental comrades were so enraged to see their comrade’s work treated with disrespect that they protested, the painting was removed but fell straight into the hands of the kleptomaniac Herman Goering.
So what happened next?….was it squirreled away into some private collection where it still hangs today or was it ignominiously destroyed in the fall of Berlin? There were two unverified sightings of the picture in Berlin in 1945 and 1948 but the exact fate of this iconic German painting remains a complete mystery.
Text by Rupert Edwards