Animals (Franz Marc & Martin Buber)

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Yellow Cow

This terrestrial surface is a physical place of noise and violence. Redemption is its metamorphosis. Franz Marc, who was killed at Verdun on the Western Front, was a tragic figure to those who memorialized him. Writing his obituary in the Berliner Tageblatt on March 6, 1916, the poet Else Lasker-Schüler called her friend “a mighty biblical figure about whom there hung the fragrance of Eden. Across the landscape he cast a blue shadow. He was the one who could still hear the animals speak; and he transfigured their uncomprehended souls.”

Marc’s 1911 Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow) (fig. 5) is physically and spiritually lyrical. She undulates soundfully. The art historian Klaus Lankheit spots instinctive, joyous, animal-like being. Frederick Levine finds security and harmony along with exaltation. Both refer to Kandinsky’s color symbolism. Yellow is placid, cheerful, and sensual, the blue on the cow’s flank is spiritual, as are the mountains in the distance. Levine notes how the creature has begun to float above the ground.19 Standing in for redeemed existence, like the Baal Shem Tov, she is “free of all earthly aspects” (LBS, 72).

A visual marker to the tonal stuff of redemption in relation to death, the yellow cow’s joyful lilt betrays signs from a different symbolic register than that of simple sensual joy. Pathetic, her image evokes the ecstatic change of status that only death can bring just before the material order dissolves into immateriality. Four obtruding black vertical shapes, an axis of doom, frame the main figure. The line of her throat, the motion with which she has stretched it out and up, is the secret movement toward her own slaughter. It is the same gesture performed by the blue deer in Marc’s Fate of the Animals (plate 14), her throat curving into slashing shards of orange, red, and black light from the dark, right side of the forest. Both are premonitions of death. Fate of the Animals is only more violent in its expression. “It is artistically logical to paint such pictures before wars, not as dumb reminiscences afterwards,” the painter wrote to his wife in 1915.20 Levine hears the more obvious plea for redemption in Fate of the Animals, but the same cry can already be heard in Yellow Cow.


In the Pentateuch, domestic animals are an everyday piece of equipment at the basis of pastoral economy, ritual cult, and social gestures of welcome. In Psalms, Job, and Jonah, wild animals gauge the sublimity of divine power, a sovereignty extending far beyond the limits of human care. In modern Jewish thought, the life of encounter includes raw sensation. Religious thought thus participates in what Marc called “the animalization of art,” a line he traced from Delacroix, Millet, Cézanne, and Van Gogh to unnamed French artists, presumably Picasso, Braque, and Delaunay. For both Buber and Marc, animal life is bound up with judgment. In Horse in the Landscape (plate 13), the “inner trembling animal life,” the circuit of blood, is expressed through the multifarious parallelism and waves in line (S, 98). For Buber, the judgment conveyed by animal life is expressed by a wordless glance or by touch. The animal is a persona manifesting the spiritual sensation that animates the sensible world. Beasts reflect a trembling life that looks toward and makes demands upon the human person who comes near to them.

Animals embed a down-to-earth sensuality into human companionship and moral judgment. The young Besht slips away from the cramped and unpleasant confines of the traditional Jewish schoolroom “as softly as a cat.” He is left alone in the forest, where he grows up “under the speechless modes of the creatures” (LBS, 52). On the mode of speechless communication, Buber professed in I and Thou that the “eyes of an animal have the capacity of a great language.” Without sound or gesture, they communicate an anxiety between plantlike security and spiritual risk (IT, 144). “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat.” We hear its “truly ‘eloquent’ glance” as it turns its glance upon “us brutes.” The cat “began its glance by asking me with a glance that was ignited by the breath of my glance.” It demands to know, “Can it mean that you mean me? Do I concern you? Am I there for you? Am I there? What is that around me? What is it about me? What is that?!” (145). Just as suddenly, the stammering glance reverts to speechless anxiety (146).

The animalization of religion and art, the cat’s command of moral judgment, is a complex sensation that burrows deep beneath the surface of everyday human communication and rational discourse. To entertain the possibility that the cat’s eyes have a great capacity for language is to join sight and sound into wordless expression. Touch suggests that an animal glance meeting my glance maintains the breath-like power to ignite. In his own art, Marc conveyed judgment through animal perception, the way in which nature appears to the eye of an animal, a comparison that renders our own conceptions paltry and soulless (S,99). I and Thou, Horse in the Landscape, Yellow Cow, and Fate of the Animals privilege raw animality over against impoverished, instrumental human reason. A severe act of judgment, the stammering eye of a beast turns the human person into a brute.

Conferring on animals the capacity to pass judgment upon human life, Buber describes himself as a young child on his grandfather’s estate, recalling how he had gone to stroke the neck of “my darling,” abroad-backed dapple-gray horse. Unsullied by self-consciousness and intellectual cognition, “what I experienced in touch with the animal was the other, the immense otherness of the other, which, however, did not remain strange like the otherness of the ox and the ram, but rather let me draw near and touch it. When I stroked the mighty mane . . . and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me.”

Gently raising its massive head, ears flick, a quiet snort, the signal from the beast, “and I was approved.” But once he grew self-conscious about his own hand, contact was ruined. The horse did not raise its head to the boy’s touch. “[A]t the time I considered myself judged” (BMM, 23). Bound up in the revelation of the other’s presence, the moral authority to judge has been given over to a horse, by whose most forceful and elemental authority a human being is accepted or rejected.

[Animals are in vogue now. When were they not? I wrote about sensation, animal life, and religion in The Shape of Revelation.  The human and animal share an asymmetrical matrix space. These remarks reflect on the artist Franz Marc, and then Martin Buber. Marc and the Yellow Cow appear in the Pathos chapter, pp.111-12. The material on Buber appears in the Eros chapter, pp.213-15.]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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