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Ninety-six years ago yesterday, back there in the dark days of the First World War, German Expressionist painter Franz Marc was killed by shrapnel during the Battle of Verdun. It was one of those monumentally stupid battles, even by the standards of the day, lasting 10 months and costing nearly 700,000 lives for essentially nothing. We’ve become so much more efficient at killing each other these days, but that’s a subject for another time.

Given the tone of Expressionism, all angst and misery, it’s strangely fitting that Marc would be killed in such a place. Even more tragic is that he was awaiting orders to leave the combat zone that never quite caught up with him while he was alive. It was all so appropriate to me since Expressionist art almost universally says “God, does THIS suck.” Visualize Edvard Munch’s The Scream and you’ll get my meaning.This is the stuff that Kilgore Trout would have hanging on his walls, or maybe Eeyore.

Dog Lying in Snow (Franz Marc, 1910 - 11)

Creativity engenders itself differently in different people, I suppose. Europe in the part of the 20th Century, was on the verge of being torn apart by a war that everyone saw coming and no one could stop. In America, labor unrest was growing and an endless tide of immigrants (Including my grandparents on both sides) was helping a growing nation perfect the urban slum. The Expressionists didn’t retreat into nonsense like the Dadaists or reject reality like the modernists. They embraced the anxiety and uncertainty of their times, and they did it with boldness and color.

The Bewitched Mill (Franz Marc, 1913)

This isn’t something that I’m going to turn to when I want to feel good. No bucolic rural scenes or children playing at the beach here. But I will take it in because it’s powerful and haunting and it serves as a reminder of what some would call the real obligation of the artist; to write your time, be it in words on paper or pigments on canvas. There are messages here for us. All we need to do is look.

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