Art mystery: What became of The Tower of Blue Horses?

Franz March's The Tower of Blue Horses has been missing since the 1940s. It disappeared following the collapse of Nazi Germany. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Franz Marc’s The Tower of Blue Horses has been missing since the 1940s. It disappeared following the collapse of Nazi Germany. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

What fate befell The Tower of Blue Horses, a fine expressionist oil painting by the German artist Franz Marc?

The fate of the 200cm by 193cm work remains a mystery to this day, having disappeared around the end of World War 2.

Its history is as remarkable as it is mysterious.

Marc painted the work, which he called Der Turm der blauen Pferde, in the summer of 1913. Only a preliminary sketch in ink and a small watercolour rendering survives, the latter sent as a new year’s postcard to the poet Else Lasker-Schüler. It is now in the Munich State Graphics Collection.

The Tower of Blue Horses was exhibited soon after in the First German Autumn Salon. Following World War 1, it was acquired for the new contemporary annexe of the Berlin National Gallery.

However, it was later to fall victim to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s disdain for modern art. It was removed from the annexe as part of Hitler’s “cleansing” of modern art works after the Nazis came to power in 1933, and was even included in the Nazi-backed Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937 in Munich.

This sparked a protest by war veterans. Marc had died during the Battle of Verdun and veterans argued its inclusion in the exhibition was disrespectful of his ultimate sacrifice for his country. The painting was duly removed from the exhibition and did not go on display when the artworks were moved to Berlin.

Around 1936, the painting was known to be transferred into the care of German politician and leading Nazi Party member Hermann Goering, who was gathering a hoard of valuable modernist paintings, including two others by Marc.

Goering is known to have sold some of these at a considerable profit, but there was no record of him ever selling The Tower of Blue Horses. It has been missing since the end of World War 2.

An art historian reported seeing it in an exhibition venue in Berlin in 1945 during the city’s Soviet occupation, and a journalist said he saw it in the nearby youth hostel in the winter of the Berlin blockade, in 1948-49. It was reported to have two or three slits cut in it by that stage.

Its fate beyond that remains a matter of conjecture.

The painting has never been forgotten and art lovers to this day hope that one day it will be uncovered in a bank vault, or found gathering dust in an attic.

Now, two German art galleries have paid a touching tribute to Marc’s long-lost painting, in an exhibition entitled Missing.

The Haus am Waldsee in Berlin and The Pinakotheken in Munich have collaborated in parallel exhibitions in which contemporary artists have re-imagined The Tower of Blue Horses.

Their works were created exclusively for this investigative exhibition project, which set out to examine the image’s mythology and trace the unbroken fascination it holds.

As the Pinakotheke gallery points out, scarcely any other masterpiece in the modernist tradition has as tumultuous a story as The Tower of Blue Horses.

The participating artists in Berlin are Martin Assig, Norbert Bisky, Birgit Brenner, Johanna Diehl, Marcel van Eeden, Julia Franck, Arturo Herrera, Via Lewandowsky, Rémy Markowitsch and Peter Rösel.

The participating artists in Munich are Viktoria Binschtok, Tatjana Doll, Slawomir Elsner, Jana Gunstheimer, Thomas Kilpper, Dierk Schmidt

The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam has confirmed that it will bring the exhibition to the Netherlands in autumn 2017.

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