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What happened when you found the animals?

IS the picture on this page a work of art? If not, why not? And if it is, does the fact that a hedgehog, horse, grasshopper, and flower are discernible among the abstract elements of the composition have anything to do with our willingness to classify it as art? At very first glance, were we disinterested, irritated, or confused by what appeared to be just another black-and-white abstraction -- and not a particularly handsome one at that? Were we about to pass it by until something specific caught our eye -- perhaps the highly stylized head of the horse or the hedgehog's prickly form? And then, looking closer and realizing that the picture represented living creatures in an outdoor setting, were we willing to accept it as a ``real'' picture, and possibly even as a work of art?

In short, did our recognition of animals and an insect in this woodcut favorably alter our perception of it? And what does that say about the manner in which we look at and judge art? Assuming that our opinion of this work went up the second we recognized the animals, does that mean that we would rate a study of a man or woman even higher, and a figure of a great prophet higher yet? Taking this line of questioning one step further, had the creatures in this print been very realistically delineated and detailed, would we have been even more apt to declare what we saw before us as art?

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Every one of these questions is tricky and a bit unfair. Our judgment of specific works of art is always dependent upon a number of factors, and the relative merits of an abstraction and a realistic painting or print hinge upon matters of vision and quality, not on the issue of category or definition. There have been times, for instance, when my own favorable response to a picture I thought was totally abstract was considerably weakened the moment I realized it actually contained a few highly stylized figures, and others when I welcomed the fact that the apparently nonobjective or Abstract Expressionist image before me was partly representational. In neither case was my reaction determined by my preference for one form of painting over another, but by the manner in which each had been painted, and by the appropriateness of a particular style to the artist's intentions.

Even so, the questions I've asked pinpoint a few areas of uncertainty that occur during our initial response to new and somewhat ambiguous imagery, and should, I hope, help clarify something of what takes place during the ``deciphering'' and evaluation of such work.

First, as to the print itself. ``Horse and Hedgehog'' was made by Franz Marc (1880-1916), an early modernist and founder-member of Der Blaue Reiter, an influential group of artists dedicated to highly subjective pictorial statements using not only Expressionist but also Cubist and Futurist theories. Marc's most famous works combine animal figures with dynamic abstract shapes and are highly romantic in color and theme.

The composition of this woodcut is extremely simple. Only the harsh black diagonal violates what is essentially a four-part distribution of objects, with the hedgehog, horse, grasshopper, and flower each occupying its own quarter of the image. The dynamics of this work hinge on the black diagonal, and on the manner in which it is intersected just below the picture's center and is then continued in slightly altered form toward the bottom. Without it, the print would lose a great deal of its impact, and the composition as a whole would almost certainly fall apart.

Another structural device was the blackening of all four corners of the image to make it more self-contained and to present an excuse to add such natural elements as grass and sun rays. In fact, as we study each section and detail more closely, it becomes obvious that the artist worked with two very distinct sets of pictorial data, the real and the imaginary, and that he used them interchangeably as the occasion warranted.

It is the arbitrary manner in which he arranged these compositional elements and the casual way he filled the spaces between them with whatever line or shape would fit that weakens the integrity and credibility of this print.

As a result, we don't really know what we are looking at. Is it a dramatic black and white abstraction enriched by the presence of four living things? Is it a boldly Expressionist piece built around animals, insect, and plant? Or is it a hodgepodge of realistic forms and details, abstract shapes, and expressionistic effects that seems quite impressive at first but begins to fall apart as it is examined?

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In my opinion it is the latter. Coming from Marc's hands, it is a successful hodgepodge, but a hodgepodge nonetheless. It's an interesting enough print, and a fairly revolutionary one, considering its date. I am also rather fond of the little hedgehog, although it seems a bit out of place in its surroundings.

Is this woodcut art? For all its ambiguities, I'd say yes. It packs a considerable punch, especially in the original, and conveys a strong sense of the graphic sensibility for which the members of Der Blaue Reiter were famous. In addition, it gives us another insight into the creative processes of one of the most extraordinary painters of the early 20th century, an artist who was killed in World War I at the age of 26, three years after this print was made.

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