Searching for a Masterpiece

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“The Bewitched Mill,” 1913

When I began plotting and writing Getting Taken, the third installment in my “Getting Even” series, I needed a missing masterpiece. I could have made one up. (That’s what fiction writers do.) But I decided to do a little searching first and see if I could find the real thing—something that tweaked my imagination. I first thought of Franz Marc, a German artist. I’ve loved his paintings since I saw “The Bewitched Mill” in the Chicago Art Institute many years ago. It’s a cubist/Expressionist style in primary colors with animals drinking from a mill pond. There are birds and, I think, a squirrel in the tree behind the waterfall and some sort of feline and canine drinking from the pool. The painting stuck with me like a dream. A peaceful dream. But the Internet hadn’t been invented yet, and I was distracted by other things (George Harrison, for example), so I didn’t pursue the artist any further.

Some years later I saw a poster in an art store featuring three horses. These weren’t just beautiful horses. (I mean, really, aren’t they all?) These were powerful creatures with massive haunches and chests. And they were red. (Which is probably why the painting is titled “The Red Horses.”) The painting moved me. It evoked movement and power and the horses’ bodies echoed the landscape. When I looked to see the artist’s name, I learned it was my old friend Franz Marc. I immediately sought out a book on him (still no internet), and devoured the images. He painted mostly horses, but also a menagerie of other creatures. (And an occasional human and landscape.) He was a sensitive, spiritual man who loved animals, seeing them as innocents in harmony with nature, and he endeavored to paint the world from the their perspective. “Is there a more mysterious idea,” he asked, “than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of animals?”

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Franz Marc

Marc’s life was tragically short. Germany drafted him into World War I, and he served in France. Authorities in Berlin had just issued an order that would have removed artists and other notable creative types from the front lines. (While it certainly isn’t fair to get a pass on warfare because you’re creative, it is kind of refreshing to know that artists were that highly regarded.) But before this order came through, during the Battle of Verdun, Marc died instantly when a shell splinter pierced his brain. He was 36.

A number of Marc’s paintings were on display in the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, organized by the Nazi party. These were mostly works confiscated from German museums that the Nazis, Hitler in particular, considered an “insult” to German feeling. This assault against “modern” art was aimed at anything that wasn’t considered representational, including the impressionists and expressionists. (At the time, this opinion was not unique to the Nazis.) But when someone pointed out that Marc had been a fallen hero in WWI, his paintings were withdrawn.

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“The Tower of Blue Horses.” 1913

As is frequently the case, censorship brings out the hypocrites. Many of these “degenerate” paintings found their way into private Nazi collections. Herman Goering, second in the Nazi command, had an extensive collection, and Marc’s “The Tower of Blue Horses” was one of them. This painting was large (four by six feet) and majestic. The horses’ bearing and color (blue symbolized the spiritual and a quest for what is pure) remind me of four powerful seers. Indeed, a friend of Marc’s, Elsa Lasker-Schuler described the horses as “neighing archangels.”

“The Tower of Blue Horses” was last seen in Goering’s hunting lodge. As the Allies closed in, Goering burned the lodge to the ground. The painting may have been destroyed. However, at least one person claims to have seen it in a hostel in Berlin right after the war. One can only hope. Whatever its fate, it hasn’t been seen since 1945.