There was a time when a painting of a cow used to enrage me like no other. The bright colors and cool distant mountains, the sloping curves and happy scene reached deep within me and brought forth some kind of churning, livid reaction. I hated that cow. Viscerally. That cow annoyed the fuck out of me.
In college, during one of my substantial existential bouts of gloom and sorrow, one of my very best friends brought me a poster of Yellow Cow by the German Expressionist Franz Marc. To cheer me up.
“When you are sad,” she said, “look at this cow and you’ll feel better.” And she put the cow on the wall of my dorm. “See?! It’s such a happy cow!”
And she closed her eyes, smiled serenely, and hummed like a happy cow would hum. I scowled. But I didn’t stop her. After my friend left, I stared at Yellow Cow. But I didn’t take it down. Happy Yellow Cow.
Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), Franz Marc. 1911.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
I must confess that somehow that cow, with her big blue spot, did something to me. Franz Marc, who I embarrassingly did not know of at the time, affected me with that happy, yellow cow. That cow, curving up and kicking up her heels, on the verge of some euphoric moo. “Moooooo!” will cry Yellow Cow. “Moooooooo!” And she is so happy. And she made me so angry. And I couldn’t figure out why.
I would stand in my dorm room and just stare at that cow. Yellow Cow would distract me from my studies. Her bright yellow skin amidst her warm pasture. Yellow is an annoying color. And it is impossible to ignore. It’s so… yellow. I’d come in from class. Yellow Cow. I would try to do my homework. Yellow Cow. I would lie awake in bed in the dark. And I just knew that only a few feet away, there in the dark, was that fucking, happy Yellow Cow. Yellow Cow!
One evening, I’d finally had enough. I’d had enough of Yellow Cow. I’d had enough of that sublime smile on that lifted face. I’d had enough of those kicking feet and curling tail. I’d had enough of that happiness – that happiness for no other reason than being happy and in the moment. And ignoring everything else. Why did it bother me so? Didn’t that cow understand how difficult life is?
In a rage, I did something I had never done before or since. I tore Yellow Cow down from my wall, ripping Marc’s cheerful, pastoral masterpiece to shreds. In my fists, I crumpled Yellow Cow, satisfied as I felt the stiff poster paper buckle and fold beneath me.
But Yellow Cow, battered, bent, and ripped, kept on smiling.
Yellow Cow never taunted me. Let me be clear about that. I never felt that Yellow Cow was smug. She was just happy. That’s all. And nothing else existed in that moment for her. She was happy to be alive and cared about nothing else. And she smiled and leapt into the air because of it. And I had had enough of her happiness, a happiness that came through so clear and distinct, I knew it was there in the dead of night. I wasn’t envious of Yellow Cow. I just didn’t want to see her anymore. She just didn’t fit. I wouldn’t let her fit. Not in my grey, damp world, I wouldn’t.
I don’t remember what I told my friend about Yellow Cow or if I told her at all. She found happiness in Yellow Cow. And she wanted me to be happy, because I was not. And she cared about me. Because she was my friend. And she loved me, as my close friends tend to do.
Many years later, I re-discovered Franz Marc and the Blue Rider group. I’d always loved Kandinsky, but I’d never delved further into his art circle, one of its members being the young, gifted Franz Marc. And I fell in love with Marc. His animals. His curving lines. His nudes. His cubism. His colors. I keenly, urgently wanted to learn more about him and his world and craft.
By then I had found a personal, deep well in early twentieth-century German art. And I wanted to see more of Marc’s art, this art that gave me a strange calming solace. And then, one day, I turned a page and saw her there.
“Oh,” I said. “It’s you.”
And Yellow Cow, just as she did years before, said nothing. With her eyes closed, she smiled her smile and kicked up her heels. And curled her tail, ignoring me, happy in her eternal moment.
And I learned that young Franz Marc died at that wretched Battle of Verdun, on the fourth of March, 1916. An artillery shell splinter through his head. He did not receive in time the order that, because he was a known artist, he was to be pulled from the lines. His job in the ranks was to paint camouflage, that strange wartime art. Last Sunday, February 8, was his birthday. Soon, he will die.
At work, I have a little book at my desk. In a used bookstore, I found it, a small collection of Marc’s animals. Color plates of deer and horses and foxes and a cow. When I am sad or stressed, I open that little book and rest along with tiny cubist creatures, their angled lines and soft colors.
My sixteen-month old son, Søren, loves art. “Art! Art!” he’ll shout. And I will whisk him up into my arms and carry him through our apartment. As I show him each framed poster on the wall, he points and smiles. “Art!” And together, we wander through my coffee table book of Marc’s sketches.
Søren doesn’t know that when we read one of his favorite books, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, that when we see a blue horse looking at me, it is the blue horse of Franz Marc. But I do. And I smile. And Søren neighs and clicks his tongue. And sometimes I remember a yellow cow that refused to look at me, which makes me a little sad and happy at the same time.