The White Man (1907) was the first painting I saw by Lyonel Feininger, , glanced at early 2013. And one noticed. Digging further I found he was different. And later I discovered he was also a cyclist, like Braque and Beckett. Later in 2013 I cycled near Weimar too, but before I understood Feininger and Weimar.
Wednesday 24th December 2014 / Saturday 24th January 2015
A LONG LOOK AT LYONEL – HE STOOD WAIST DEEP IN THE MODERN BUT THEN LOOKED BACK THROUGH his new COLORFUL CUBIST LENSES
Feininger was an intriguing painter. He was different, a singular Modernist who rode his own race, who began painting in the creative frenzy in Europe just before WW1 but then – older than some others – applied the new painterly ways (color and Cubism) distinctively to his own earnest Neo-Romantic vision.
So he liked a good sunset!
“Windows reflect, yawning and dark low down, silver above; and at the very top… where they reflect the blue sky. They are deep blue… Reflecting windows – no one has ever suggested this to me, this is all mine, and I give it to you.. reflecting windows. Even when I was a little boy, in the country, how much I loved them….
Sunset, everything in gold and purple half-tones, and in one spot, right in the very far distance…two or three rows of windows facing west, throwing back the gold of the sky like spears, transforming the whole picture in an indescribably beautiful tone. In the already dying eastern sky, the goodnight sky, there are suddenly pieces like jewels from the sun-irradiated western sky, just put there frankly and impudently.. at times like this I know that I am not just one of the crowd.”
From a letter to Julia Berg (1905) who became his second wife.
Though he started painting middle of that remarkable decade before WW1, and associated with many of the main art movers in Paris and Germany, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956, died age 85) was not a front rank Modernist artist. Instead he stood apart – consciously? – and applied the new Modern painting ways – especially color and Cubism – in his own idiosyncratic and prolific way (paintings, drawings & woodcuts) to a nostalgic deep seated personal Romantic vision, first to energetic caricatured townscapes (drawing on his substantial cartooning career), and later to atmospheric Neo-Romantic architectural townscapes / churchscapes & seascapes, evoking for him the sublime, the divine? Wedded to this vision his art did not cross to abstraction, and also did not obviously reflect the calamitous times he lived through, like some others? Such as his Bauhaus associate Paul Klee?
Lyonel Feininger was not a full bore Modern painter, not part of the preoccupied innovative avant-garde. Instead he remained Old Fashioned, straddled the old and new, with always an eye over his shoulder and as the song goes, doing it his way.
This may be because he was a bit older and came to painting later, though he was 5 years younger than his friend Kandinsky, and two years younger than Matisse, both full bore Modernists, and much more famous for it.
But reality was artists reacted to the then rampaging Modern in various ways. Some keenly embraced it, many ignored it,and some like Feininger took what they needed.
So for whatever reason he grew up to emerge with a heartfelt personal Neo-Romantic mindset. He loved a good sky drama, fell in love with beautiful countryside, the seaside, and he liked people. So he rode his own race, stood alone, and became a singular artist for it, painted / woodcut a large distinctive oeuvre, most easily recognised as a work by Feininger.
In particular he applied the new Modern painterly styles keenly, prolifically and idiosyncratically to his own pre-Modern life view, first in his cartoon-like caricatured nostalgic townscapes, and second to his lyrical, atmospheric Neo-Romantic architectural townscapes & seascapes, which recall the CD Friedrich’s advocatory spiritual Romantic landscapes, fumbling for the sublime, the divine. Coincidentally Feininger summered 1892 at Rügen on the Baltic, where Friedrich located his famous Chalk cliffs on Rügen (1818).
Thus he was also attracted early to the soaring verticals of Gothic church architecture. Recollections of early visits to the Met in NYC were reinforced later in Europe, early on in Belgium, then in Germany, especially in the Weimar area after 1905.
Thus “I am not the most modern [artist]; rather a person who must break with his time in order to live. Thus I may live behind the times.” (quoted by Bryan Gilliam, catalogue for the major 2011 US retrospective at the Whitney American Museum of Art, ” Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World”). His sensitive Romantic mindset was evident in his childhood and stayed with him, like the 34 year old writing (above) in 1905 on “Reflecting windows” to his new flame Julia.
Apparently he saw JMW Turner’s work in London in 1908 but this does not seem to have directly impacted his art, though obviously both artists in their respective ways explored light effects in numinous Romantic landscapes.
Was Lyonel a (German) Expressionist painter? No, otherwise the term becomes too broad as to be meaningless? It usually, and sensibly, refers, for example, to Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group formed in Dresden in 1905 by Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff and others, later adding Nolde and Pechstein. Feininger knew and worked among these painters, but his work is much quieter and less “emotional”.
Despite some quasi-abstract images (eg Harbor Mole (1913), Bridge V (1919), Gaberndorf I (1921), and especially Cloud (1936)), Feininger stayed figurative / representational, anchored to the visual objective, having no interest in the fashionable Modern abstraction movements. He preferred to work powerfully with the light and form in many townscapes & seascapes, but infused by spiritual import and humanity. Invited later by American Abstract Artists to join their group, he replied, “My artistic faith is founded on a deep love of nature, and all I represent or have achieved is based on this love.”
He was religious, a Christian and it showed in his art. He wrote of his “‘unbounded faith in the goodness of the Almighty’ and in art’s capacity to express it.” (Barbara Haskell, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, 2011). Both Kandinsky and Mondrian were also religious, or spiritual, except, by contrast, their emphatic approach to pursuing their beliefs through art was abstraction.
Feininger’s painting was apparently also influenced by his important musical skills and interests, especially Bach and 19th C German Romantic music. One critic suggests the “strict architectural patterns of Bach’s music” helped inspire his later famous distinctive Cubist townscapes and seascapes. But also he saw both art and music as serving to unlock the numinous, the spiritual.
His most original works are the early caricatured, grotesque figured street scene paintings (c1907-1918), fantasy images, what he called his “mummery pictures”, which in turn flowed from his long successful career in Berlin cartooning for newspapers, which may in turn draw on impressions from his Manhattan childhood, when his parents (whom he later facetiously labelled ”hypothetical”!) were often touring with their music, leaving young Lyonel alone with his musings.
His best works – sustained idioyncratic application of Modernist painting ways to his pet subjects – include some of these striking caricatured street ensembles, like the early The White Man (1907), one of his first paintings and where already we meet the Mannerist elongated figure, the grotesque dangly gangling man; and the noisy Carnival in Arcueil (1911); the curvaceous Cubist-caricatured Jesuits III (1916), his record priced painting (23$m, 2007); the Green Bridge II (1916), with its Feininger trademark curvy conchoidal fracturing ; and the Cubist-caricatured The Lady in Mauve (1922).
They include some of his many woodcuts, like Buildings and The Cathedral, both 1919.
And they include some of his later striking atmospheric Neo-Romantic townscapes and seascapes, the lyrical crystalline in paintings like Barfusserkirche (or Church of the Minorities, Erfurt, 1923); the spectral light in Blue Marine (1924); the micaceous-flaked sky in Bird Cloud (1926), the Cubo-kinetic Sailing Boats (1929), and majestic Stiller Tag Am Meer III (Calm at Sea III, 1929).
He wrote 1912, “What is seen must be inwardly re-formed and crystallised”. He drew on Cubism but applied it in his own representational way, to his own Neo-Romantic.mindset.
Unusual paintings include The Bicycle Race (1912), a people painting but directly reflecting his fresh exposure to Cubism, one of his first “Cubist” paintings and also reminding us of Italian Futurists? And The Bridge V (1919) where the “crystalline Cubist” style stops not far from full abstraction, and Portrait of a Tragic Being (1920), even more unusual, a frank quasi-abstract Expressionist portrait, which may refer to the sorrowful aftermath of ww1.
Throughout his career, and especially through his busy 1910-20 decade, his output tended to mingle his various styles.
Perhaps oddly for a social person he painted very few portraits: just two self portraits, the first from 1910, the man reflective and elegant behind a pink tie and a toy boat hat, and the striking second version 5 years later, age 44, now a fierce bull-necked lobotomised man, a Cubist-caricature cross? But no others? None of friends or even his wife Julia?
And yet he saw his art – his streetscapes, churches, seascapes – embodying “humanity”: “I don’t suppose I’ll ever represent human subjects in the normal sense in my pictures: but on the other hand humanity is the only thing that moves me in everything.Without warm human feelings I can’t do anything..”
His unique Trans-Atlantic career was shaped by history. He was at heart European / German, living half a century in Europe (Germany / France), but his career was book-ended each side by the United States. Thus he was born and raised in New York City of German parentage, then at 16 was gone to Europe, to Germany, where he ducked violin study in Leipzig for art training in Hamburg, then Berlin. Then exactly 50 years later he was dumped back into NYC by ww2, back to his childhood! But the uprooting at 66 hurt. He did not resume painting for about two years, around late 1939, and when he did he often returned to old motifs, eg The Anglers, Black Bridge (1942), which is straight from a 1916 watercolour and ink.
He wrote to his son T. Lux in 1939: “In the beginning I suffered a great deal from the feeling of being out of place. But now all I feel is a huge advantage in the fact that I was in Europe for so long. That is where my work sources its impulse.”
The disruption complicated his life, thus his US citizenship was an issue in Germany during ww1, and then his long German experience was a problem (if minor?) for his reputation in the US after ww1, as was for Marsden Hartley his (shorter) Berlin adventures.
His was an unusual road to painting. From the early 1890s, based in Berlin, he built a sustained and very successful early career over about 15 years as an illustrator / cartoonist, creating satirical cartoons and comic strips for European and US newspapers. “[Feininger] ist he first among the Berlin graphic artists”, Georg Hermann, 1901. Then only in his mid 30s did he finally begin painting, “drawn by a “thirst for serious work”. But his switch to painting was also triggered by his discovery of the Weimar country, via his new love Julia, and by his (second) visit to Paris, in 1906. What a time for a budding painter to visit Paris, middle of a pivotal decade in art history. In 1906/07 he met Fauvist art and work by Cezanne and Van Gogh. And a follow up visit about 4 years later, in 1911, when Cubism was spreading, triumphing after its origins with Braque and Picasso in 1907 and 1908, cemented the Modernist painting styles he was to apply for the rest of his life. In 1911 he met Robert Delaunay and his Orphic Cubism, and in May 1911 six of his paintings were hung in the Paris Salon des Independents.
Subsequently in Germany he became a successful painter, well connected and well collected. He met and worked with many major art figures in Germany, eg the Berlin Secession (from around 1903 through 1913), the important Die Brucke (the German Expressionists) in 1912, and Der Blaue Reiter (Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky) in 1913, then the Novembergruppe at end 1918 (Max Pechstein et al), and in 1919 the Dresdener Secession (Otto Dix et al).
A solo exhibition Sep. 1917 at Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm Berlin gallery was a career turning point.
Then in 1919 he was the first artist hired (as “Master of Form”) by Walter Gropius for the Bauhaus, joined by many others, in particular Kandinsky and Paul Klee. And remained with the Bauhaus its whole span, transferring later to Dessau, then Berlin where in 1933 it closed for good after the Nazi accession to power January 1932.
As per the Robert Frost poem, Feininger walked his own road, and his work remained largely detached from the drama of his times. He remained largely unscathed by his close contact with then popular German Expressionism. He lived in Germany through WW1 (aged 43 in 1914), and later through the economic and political breakdown of the 1930s, including having his own art branded “Degenerate” by the Nazis, finally forcing his exit.
In a 1917 letter to Adolf Knoblauch he wrote, ambiguously: “The most terrible world events are weighing us down and are leaving their gloomy traces in my pictures… what could be more natural than my recurrent struggles for a kind of cheerfulness”). But generally his art seemed not to overtly reflect the dark times, like, oddly enough, his more famous associate Paul Klee,but in stark contrast to others like Max Beckmann and Otto Dix.
His response was more subtle, oblique and escapist? There may be dark ironic “cheerfulness” in the grotesque figured streetscapes? But his many Neo-Romantic townscape / seascape paintings seem like a refuge or retreat from the violent secular unrest. One frank watercolour Untitled (Deserted child) from 1915 is an exception.
Feininger was industrious through a long life, compiled a diverse and prolific oeuvre: countless drawings, many woodcuts. As well as many paintings, oil and watercolour. He even made and painted toys for his children and friends, and toy trains. And he took photographs, used their effects in his painting?
We can call him the cartooning Neo-Romantic Cubist. To his early paintings he brought his extensive cartooning illustration skills, especially in his comedic grotesque caricature figured street and town scenes, exaggerated, and garishly colored by the Fauves, and Delaunay? Maybe this art taps also his childhood fantasy for toys and characters? One critic sees Kandinsky’s early folk art references here? Maybe. And August Macke’s “fascination with fantasy” and his “Fauvist palette”. Maybe.
Then his 1911 immersion in a Paris alive with Cubism impacted dramatically. He emerged painting atmospheric, luminous / translucent, fractured “prismatic” townscapes, especially churches and other buildings, like Zirchow VII (1918), and Kirche über Stadt (1927). And he soon started adding seascapes, usually with boats, eg Side wheel steamer at landing (1912), Sidewheeler II (1913) and Boats (1917).
Initially he applied Cubism to his elongated caricature figures (like Angler with blue fish and Bathers on the beach, both 1912, and Am strande, 1913). And he used Cubist conchoidal curves in The Bridge (1913, at Oberweimar). More often it was straight lines, the rigorous Gothic vertical (eg Gelmeroda III (1913) and VIII (1921)), or an intense crystalline fracturing (eg Gelmeroda IV (1913) and VII (1917), Tortum II (1925), and Bird Cloud (1926)).
There is a profound reflective Neo-Romantic spiritual atmosphere in many of these paintings, which he reinforces by inserting tiny human figures. He clearly recalls, evokes CD Friederich, if not quite so single-mindedly. Thus painting was, he said, “a path to the intangibility of the divine.”
He was a man of habit in his painting, thus his kitbag of styles did not change much after about 1920 (age 49), and he kept revisiting subjects, themes, motifs, like the comic people scenes and the Romantic “prismatic” townscapes, and like certain locations, especially the small Gelmeroda church near Weimar (13 renditions?), where the tall steeple captured his attention, and nearby (to the east) Oberweimar, where he gave the bridge a working over (The Bridge (1913), The Bridge III (1917) The Bridge V (1919), as he did the church at Zirchow, by the Baltic (7 renditions?!).
And he liked the sea, and boats on the sea, popular motifs, dating back to his childhood in Manhattan, near the East River, then reinforced by many summers by the Baltic. Other than oil paintings many watercolours also flowed, like later simple quizzical geometric images Boats with yellow sails on red water (1933), Sailing ship heading left (1934).
And he liked embedding people, sometimes lone figures, in the later townscapes and seascapes, the individuals dwarfed by a cathedral, or the sea or the firmament. Painting individuals swallowed by cathedrals or marine skies might be an oblique reference to individuals swallowed helplessly by the then catastrophic unravelling of Europe, but much more likely is they were part of Feininger’s singular Romantic vision, man spiritually integrated but minute and anonymous before God’s Creation.
Later we also see a mysterious small black square motif appear in some of his Manhattan paintings, like Manhattan dawn (1944) and the muted near abstract The Spell (1951, aged 80!), maybe a late reference back to his ‘reflecting windows’?
His forced relocation back to the US in 1937 did not rupture continuity in his work? Obviously NYC had grown a lot and the verticals of the skyscrapers appeared in paintings, like Blue skyscrapers (1937), and Manhattan I and II (1940).
Maybe the big schooner sailing an ominous tourmaline crystal sea in Mid ocean (1937) reflects the mood of his abrupt move. There is a subtle abstract reference to WW2 in Storm brewing (1939), a late grotesque in Blind musician at the beach (1942), late abstract musing in Chimney pots (1951), and finally the angular colourful Manna-Hatta (1952) is unmistakeably by Mr Feininger.
References / bibliography
“Lyonel Feininger, Sailing Ship with Blue Angler”, Lyonel-Feininger-Galerie, Quedlinburg, 2006.
” Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011; exhibition catalogue)
Harbor Mole (1913),
Bridge V (1919),
Gaberndorf I (1921),
The White Man (1907),
Carnival in Arcueil (1911),
Jesuits III (1916),
The Lady in Mauve (1922),
Woodcuts: Buildings and The Cathedral, both 1919.
Barfusserkirche (or Church of the Minorities, Erfurt, 1923),
Blue Marine (1924)
Bird Cloud (1926),
Sailing Boats (1929),
Stiller Tag Am Meer III (Calm at Sea III, 1929),
The Bicycle Race (1912),
Portrait of a Tragic Being (1920),
The Anglers, Black Bridge (1942),
Untitled (Deserted child) 1915
Kirche über Stadt (1927)
Angler with blue fish and Bathers on the beach, (both 1912).
Am strande, 1913
The Bridge (1913),
Gelmeroda III (1913)
Gelmeroda VIII (1921),
Gelmeroda IV (1915),
Gelmeroda VII (1917),
Tortum II (1925),
Bird Cloud (1926),
The Bridge III (1917)
Manhattan dawn (1944)
The Spell (1951)
Blue skyscrapers (1937),
Manhattan I and II (1940)
Mid ocean (1937)
Self portrait (1910)
Self portrait (1915)
“Lyonel Feininger, Sailing Ship with Blue Angler”, Lyonel-Feininger-Galerie, Quedlinburg, 2006.
Gelmeroda, 31st July 2014