A hard, but humour-filled life – Marie Marcks

Kunstmann-VerlagMarie Marcks takes a sharp, critical look at society. She captures her observations in her drawings and adds a dose of debunking mockery. In this way, she became one of Germany's most important cartoon artists.

“Don’t kid yourself about them,”warned philosopher and publicist Claus Koch. If one sympathises too quickly with Marie Marcks’ drawings, one will overlook the “bourgeois gravity” of her work. In her political cartoons, Marcks comments on post-war Germany with “radicalism and a clear-cut, precise posture.” “To Marcks, satire is never sufficient,” says Koch. For this reason, too, Marcks remains “somewhat less witty if the occasion demands - because she wants to show that one can have a valiant heart.”

A hard, but humour-filled life

Marie Marcks, born in 1922 in Berlin, is one of the most important German women artists of the young Federal Republic. With her political cartoons, illustrations and books, she reflected on and investigated everyday life in Germany from the 1960’s until the 1990’s. Her life with five children from three husbands was not always easy. But Marie Marcks came from a parental home that had meaning and a lot of humour, as she relates.

Marie Marcks: Bildergalerie. Copyright: Kunstmann-Verlag

Her father, an architect, was able to put a whole cowboys-and-Indians battle down on paper, just like that, as she later recalled. Her mother, Else Marcks-Penzig, had attended the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and directed an art academy she herself had founded. Young Marie found inspiration and incentive with her uncle, Gerhard Marcks, as well, whose sculptures and paintings were vilified as degenerate during the Third Reich and could not be exhibited.

Marie first studied at her mother’s art academy, and then studied architecture for four semesters in Heidelberg and Stuttgart from 1943 until 1945. In 1944 she had her first child in a National Socialist Volksheim (i.e. people’s home) – “for girls who had gotten pregnant by some Aryan soldier or other to give the Fuhrer a child. Horrible! But it was cheap and I was there for only two weeks.”

Since the Russian Front was drawing closer, the 22-year old jumped onto a military train with her new-born daughter and journeyed to Hornhausen in the administrative district of Börde in Saxony-Anhalt, where her parent had been evacuated. For fear of the Russian soldiers, Marcks left her child with her parents and fled to Heidelberg. There she earned her living by drawing views of the castle and selling them to American soldiers.

Marcks stayed in Heidelberg and designed posters fort he Heidelberg Film Club and the student jazz club Cave 54. She met her husband there, listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Petersen, and discussed politics and art with the photographer Robert Lebeck and the concert promoter Fritz Rau.

First political cartoons

In the 1950’s, Marie Marcks and her children followed her husband Helmut Krauch to the USA. The radiation experiments that Krauch undertook as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Laboratory in Brookhaven, New York, made her feel very uneasy. The enmeshing of research and armaments with each other led to heated discussions that were reflected in the academic journal Atomzeitalter. Here, she also published her first political cartoons. Marcks, deeply influenced by her experience of National Socialism, wanted to take a stand. To her, responsibility meant not letting up.

The editorial office of the Süddeutsche Zeitung accepted a drawing from the magazine. Now, Marcks sent an envelope once a week to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, with cartoons on armaments issues or the peace movement, on nuclear policy or neo-Nazis. She was paid about 60 Euros (25 D-Marks at that time) for each cartoon, but only if it was printed.

“In the beginning I abbreviated my first name so people wouldn’t know I was a woman,” Marcks later recalled. Sometimes her drawings were rejected, others vanished into some desk drawer or other, such as the scene between a Green-Alternative fellow and a police officer: “So you’re a pacifist,” says the officer and stamps a form. “A communist, in other words.” He concludes: “As a terrorist you’re automatically on the ‘shoot-on-sight’ list,” and stamps “Security Risk” on the form. End of the matter.

The art of transporting into the ridiculous

Marie Marcks would not let herself be put off in her commitment. She held her ground in the male-dominated media world, in part because, with five children, she cultivated her own, unique emotional perspective on world affairs: “I had the feeling I had brought my children into a gravely imperilled world,” thus Marcks. She felt personally addressed by issues such as abortion or the deployment of Pershing II missiles.

This consternation is reflected in her cartoon figures, in politicians with alcoholics’ noses, women in overalls and anarchists with full beards, ossified generals and stressed-out, gone-to-seed mothers. “Most of the time cartoons turn out well if you’ve gotten really upset,” Marcks found, “and then you have to transport it into the ridiculous.”

In Heidelberg Marcks moved with her husband and children into an old barn in Handschuhsheim. Life together was not always easy. “In those days fathers were only involved as fathers on Sundays,” Marcks recollected, “I still remember how furious I got when my husband simply shut the door to his office to be able to work in peace.” She promptly responded with a cartoon: an exhausted mother with stringy hair and pointy nose drags three squalling children out of the living room, saying: “Dad needs peace and quiet for his work.” Dad is lying relaxed on the couch, a book on his belly, dozing.

A feminist from the very beginning

“Making things ridiculous is much more effective than lecturing people,” Marcks found – and fought with a sharp pen against old fuddy-duddy notions and roles; she fought against the prevailing opinion that women with jobs must have a bad conscience. But she did not feel at all like “a feminist from the very beginning,” as Jutta Limbach, former president of the Goethe-Institut, would later describe her. She was focused instead on investigating existing states of affairs and if possible, changing them a little bit. A successful woman in one of Marcks’ drawings comforts her morose husband: “Now don’t get all grumpy about my professorship in Bremen; you can open up a shop for children or something.”

In the course of years, Marcks learned to distil her drawings, which she always did in pencil, more and more. Some drawings depict a complex issue without needing a single word: a child has a legal paragraph hung around his neck, parents and barristers pull on it while the judge merely looks on. Or: two men in medieval armour stand next to each other, each is working on his monstrous garment of missiles, empty speech balloons billow out of their mouths. And what happens? Nothing.

Late recognition

Many of her cartoons have lost none of the currency even after the passage of years, as they deal with basic issues – lack of responsibility, marginalisation, racism or injustice. For this reason as well, Marie Marcks may well be compared with political cartoonists such as Ernst Maria Lang or Achim Greser, and is mentioned along with women artists such as Franziska Becker or Claire Brétécher.

Nonetheless, Marcks had to wait long for public acclaim. Only in 1994, at the age of 72, was she awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz (German Federal Cross of Merit) for lifetime achievement, the Göttinger Elch followed in 2002, and finally the Deutsche Karikaturenpreis (German cartoon award) in 2008. Now over 90, Marie Marcks is still drawing. Her advice for coming generations: “Stick to your guns.”

Rieke Harmsen
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
July 2013

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