His blue horses are world-famous. However, very few people know precisely where Franz Marc’s paintings were created in the landscape around the Kochelsee (lake). Our author goes out in search of the places where Marc found his inspiration – and finds a magical place.
It takes a while before I notice it. The light. It really is different here. Not strikingly different to the light in Munich’s city centre, but subtly so, changing the atmosphere only slightly. It settles over the landscape like a mellow filter, a soft focus that gives the scenery a somewhat magical appearance. “I understand why they all came here,” I hear myself saying – for the second time today. “They” are the men and women of the group of artists known as "Der Blaue Reiter" and “here” is the area around Kochel, a climatic spa by the Kochelsee, around an hour to the south of Munich.
It settles over the landscape like a mellow filter, a soft focus that gives the scenery a somewhat magical appearance.
I knew who Franz Marc was, of course. I knew that he is regarded as one of the most significant representatives of the Expressionist movement and that he belonged to “Der Blaue Reiter”, which he founded together with Wassily Kandinsky. In the Lenbachhaus (art gallery) in Munich, I have seen what is probably his most famous work, “Blaues Pferd I” (Blue Horse I). I also knew that many of the members of “Der Blaue Reiter” lived in the country, specifically in the region of the Staffelsee (lake) and the Kochelsee. But that is where my knowledge ended, both artistically and geographically. For although I live in Munich, I had never been to Kochel, where Franz March spent a lot of holidays in his childhood and his student days, or to Murnau, where he dropped into the “Russian House” – the derogatory name that the locals gave to Gabriele Münter’s house, where she lived with her life partner Wassily Kandinsky – to meet other artists. And I have especially never been to Sindelsdorf, a small municipality to the north of Kochel, where Marc lived during the most productive period of his life. I want to change that today.
We start right next to the guesthouse “Zur Post”, which looks as if it has been designed especially for Instagram with its geraniums. I have done some research in advance: a number of places that are relevant to Marc can be explored from here. You can reach the Franz March Museum in approximately a quarter of an hour on foot.
The turn-of-the-century villa in which the museum was opened in 1986, 70 years after the painter's death, stands on a hill above the Kochelsee. The modern extension was added in 2008. The museum holds more than 200 of Franz Marc’s works, including such well-known pictures as “Hocken im Schnee” (Haystacks in the Snow), “Zwei Frauen am Berg” (Two Women on the Mountain), or “Springendes Pferd” (Jumping Horse), as well as prints, small drawings, and sketches such as the pencil sketch “Turm der blauen Pferde”, a preliminary work for the oil painting “Der Turm der blauen Pferde” (Tower of Blue Horses), which has been missing since the Second World War.
“We have endeavoured to create a very private atmosphere,” says Annette Rosenboom from the museum administration – partly because most of the works of art stem from private collections and were previously hung in private residences. The museum also shows works by other artists, including works by members of “Der Blaue Reiter” and the Berlin art association “Die Brücke”, which was active at approximately the same time as “Der Blaue Reiter”. In addition, there are also regular exhibitions of contemporary art. The atmosphere really is very intimate for a museum, with rooms of different sizes, wooden floors, armchairs and large windows that provide an unobstructed view of the surrounding green space.
When I later sit on the terrace of the villa, which now houses the administration and the restaurant, I notice that I do not feel my usual museum fatigue, in spite of the many impressions that I have gained. Is that just because of the cosiness? Or also because of the light? Far below, I can see the lake through the trees. Behind it are the mountains called Herzogstand and Heimgarten, and in front of me is a delicious iced coffee. Why had I never been here before?
The next route takes us along the “Kohlleite”, which had already been a popular excursion in Marc’s time. The painting “Zwei Frauen am Berg” was created here. It shows the painter Marie Schnür and the art student Maria Franck in front of a backdrop of the lake and mountains. The two women are wearing summer dresses and hats. Maria, on the right, is lying casually on her side, supporting her head with her left arm, whilst Marie is sitting with her back to the scenery, leaning towards her. The two women look as if they are talking animatedly. It produces an easy, almost cheerful feeling. The reality was a bit more complex. Franz Marc had a relationship with both women (and also had a third lover, the married artist Annette Simon). In the summer of 1906, he chose Marie Schnür and married her at the beginning of 1907. That summer, Maria Franck baptised the Kohlleite the “hill of tears”. The marriage with Marie Schnür only lasted for one year. After that, Marc lived with Maria Franck – due to the legal situation after his divorce, a marriage was only possible in 1913.
But after a while, my gaze falls on the lake, which shimmers in the distance with a smooth silver surface. I forget the wealth of information that I have learnt and lose myself in the landscape.
I do not just happen to know all of this – Marc and his history are everywhere here. Station number 3 of the official Kunstspaziergang (art walk) is under the three chestnut trees. A display board shows the work “Zwei Frauen am Berg” and describes the story of its creation. If you prefer digital information, you can also get it via the “Franz Marc Kunstspaziergang” app, which also contains an overview map.
The sky is overcast when we reach the Kohlleite. In Marc’s time, there were probably only isolated farmhouses and a church in the region. Today, I am looking over settlements and high-voltage power lines and that bothers me to begin with. But after a while, my gaze falls on the lake, which shimmers in the distance with a smooth silver surface. I forget the wealth of information that I have learnt and lose myself in the landscape.
On the return journey, I slide down the gravel track and regret my choice of footwear. It is not a trek over high mountains, but ballet flats were not the best idea. A black and white cat distracts me from my shoe problems. It lies lazily in the field, but jumps up immediately when I call to it and trots over to be stroked. I remember that Franz Marc liked cats just as much as I do. Everyone always pictures horses or woodland animals when they think of him, but he also produced a not inconsiderable number of cat pictures! “Zwei Katzen” (Two Cats) (1909/1910), “Zwei Katzen” (Two Cats) (1913), “Die weiße Katze (Kater auf gelbem Kissen)” (The White Cat (Cat on a Yellow Pillow)) (1912), “Katzen auf rotem Tuch” (Cats on a Red Cloth) (1909/10), “Kinderbild (Katze hinter einem Baum)” (Children’s Picture (Cat behind a Tree) (1910/11), “Zwei liegende schwarze Katzen” (Two Reclining Black Cats) (1912/13), “Akt mit Katze” (Nude with Cat) (1910), “Mädchen mit Katze II” (Girl with Cat II) (1912) … The artist always had cats in his home in the country – as well as beloved white Siberian shepherd Russi. I am finding Marc increasingly likeable.
There is an intense smell of honey and vanilla. This is because of the meadowsweet, which is flowering in its thousands in the meadows.
We walk on towards the Kochelsee. On the left of the guesthouse “Zur Post”, a path, Hanersimmergasse, leads past farmhouses and flowering meadows and fields with pools. The clouds part and allow the sun through. At the crossroads with Seeweg, below the Protestant church, three cows are resting in the shade and trying to get rid of the horseflies with as little effort as possible. The chirping of the crickets is louder than the distant drone of the main road. There is an intense smell of honey and vanilla. This is because of the meadowsweet, which is flowering in its thousands in the meadows. After around twenty minutes, we reach the lake. Somewhere here, Marc found the design for “Frau in Winterlandschaft auf grüner Bank” (Woman in a Winter Landscape on a Green Bench) (1906). There are bushes and trees growing on the bank, there are families bathing and people throwing sticks to dogs. I do not have the same unobstructed view of the lake as the woman in the painting – but I do not have any snow either. The atmosphere is pleasantly peaceful, and we are relaxed as if subdued by the soft light.
The path continues along the lake towards the south, where we find the display board for the painting “Lesende Frau im Grünen” (Woman Reading in the Green), in which a lady with a hat and a light summer dress is sitting on the bank of the lake and reading a book. That must have been in the spring. On a summer’s day like today, she would not have lasted long in the sun in such an outfit. There, where the woman may have sat, there are two benches in the shade. I sit first on a bench, then on the grass and look at at the lake, in which the mountains, trees and clouds are reflected. Almost as if they were painted.
I would ideally like to remain seated, but we have to continue. First we make a brief stop in Ried, where there is not much to see. In 1914, Franz and Maria Marc purchased a house with a piece of land here, on which the artist kept his famous tame deer. Today, the house is in private ownership and not accessible. Just one display board tells of the famous previous owner, who was only able to enjoy his property for a few months before he was called up for military service in August 1914.
Marc referred to the region as “my beloved blue land”, and at this precise moment, I can understand and see why.
Finally, we come to Sindelsdorf, the locality where Franz Marc painted most of his famous pictures. We have to search a bit before we find the house where Franz and Maria Marc lived from 1909 to 1914. Of course, today it looks quite different from the historical photos. The couple took lodgings with the master joiner Josef Niggl on the first floor. Marc had his studio in the attic. We ask the local residents and soon find the famous gazebo where Marc and Kandinsky founded “Der Blaue Reiter”. Until 2009, this was in the garden of the property. Then it was rebuilt approximately one hundred metres away, on public land. According to Wassily Kandinsky, it happened like this: "We invented the name 'Der Blaue Reiter' at the coffee table in the gazebo in Sindelsdorf; both of us loved blue, Mark loved horses, whilst I loved riders. So the name emerged of its own accord. And Maria Marc’s fabulous coffee tasted even better.”
There is one final stop on our list: The work is called “Hocken im Schnee”, and we find the place that inspired the painter not far from the municipality's southern exit – but without snow. Haystacks are large, tepee-shaped heaps of hay that are set up in the fields so that the hay can dry better. As an homage to Marc, the municipality of Sindelsdorf has arranged three such haystacks where the painting was probably created. The app tells me that you can allegedly also see “Die verzauberte Mühle” (The Bewitched Mill). I cannot find it myself, but the photographer, who is slightly taller than me, thinks that he can see something. On the way home in the dusk, we make another stop on a hill and look down at Sindelsdorf.
Marc referred to the region as “my beloved blue land”, and at this precise moment, I can understand and see why. Beneath the clouds, which are lit up red, the silhouette of the mountains can be seen in different shades of blue. I enthusiastically take photographs with my camera, but cannot really capture the atmosphere. I give up, teeter over the haystacks which are lying in rows ready to be transported away, place myself in front of the panorama and breathe in deeply: “I understand why they all came here.”
Good to know: Kochel am See can be easily reached from Munich Central Station in about one hour by train, which departs every hour or half hour.