Feininger, from Manhattan to Bauhaus

Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 21 January to 13 May 2012.

1. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
The Kin-der-Kids, from The Chicago Sunday Tribune, 29 april 1906
Lithography (Commercial Lithograph) - 59.4 x 45.3 cm
New York, The Museum of Modern Art
Photo : Succession Lyonel Feininger
SODRAC (2011)
MoMA/SCALA /ArtResource

Torn between the violin, the drawing pencil and the paintbrush, between the United States where he was born, raised and died and Germany where he spent most of his career and achieved celebrity, Lyonel Feininger was a tormented artist who never stopped searching and renewing himself.

The exhibition currently showing at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), presents the many facets of his creative activities : his drawings and engravings –lithographs, etchings, woodcuts – remind us that before launching out on his painting career at the age of 35 (drawn by a “thirst for serious work”), he had been a famous illustrator, caricaturist and pioneer of comic strips, working for well-known publications such as the humorist weekly Ulk, the Lustige Blätter (funny pages), the Chicago Tribune supplement for which he wrote the adventures of the Kin-der-Kids (ill. 1), as well as the French satirical journal Le Témoin with which he began collaborating during a stay in Paris in 1906.
His parents, of German origin, had settled in the United States ; his father was a violinist and composer, his mother a pianist and singer. Both wanted to send their 16-year old son to the conservatory in Leipzig to study the violin but the young Lyonel slipped away to Hamburg where he signed up at the school of Arts and crafts before finally entering the Royal Academy in Berlin.

2. View of the exhibition Feininger
at the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montréal
Photo : BBSG

Despite his choice of the graphic arts, music continued to hold an important place in his work, as in that of his friends Paul Klee and Kandinsky. The last room of the exhibition illustrates it well, playing excerpts of his compositions and of Bach [1] whom he loved, composing fugues which he attempted to transpose to paint (the catalogue develops this aspect in the essay “Feininger, in the shadow of Bach”).
Another, more amusing, facet of his creations : the wooden toys he sculpted and painted for his friends and children, forming what his son called “the city at the end of the world” (ill. 2). Finally, little is known about his fondness for photography but the seventy photographs by his son Andreas Feininger (1906-1999), recently acquired by the MBAM, also exhibited here reflect another one of his interests. A catalogue essay analyzes this production which enabled him “to study the million aspects of reality”.
The publication which accompanies the show reproduces those paintings which could not be obtained for the exhibition, such as White Man from the Thyssen Museum (Madrid). Unfortunately, this is not really a catalogue since the works are scattered between each essay, without a commentary, and without really being in chronological order. However, the reproductions are of beautiful quality and, overall, convey a complete panorama of Feininger’s complex art.

3. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
Carnival, 1908
Oil on Canvas - 68.5 x 54 cm
Berlin, Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen
Photo : Succession Lyonel Feininger
SODRAC (2011)
bpk/Staatliche Museen, Jörg Anders/Art Resource, NY

4. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
Riot, 1910
Oil on Canvas - 104.4 x 95.4 cm
New York, The Museum of Modern Art
Photo : Succession Lyonel Feininger
SODRAC (2011)
MoMA/SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The itinerary does a fine job of revealing the evolution of his painting, inspired first from his caricatures, with whimsical and colorful compositions of gangling figures, flat and disproportioned silhouettes in a distorted reality. The successive works on display allow visitors to understand his influences. In Paris, he was in close contact with the Dôme group, discovered the Fauves and then Cezanne at the Salon of 1907 ; Van Gogh was also a major inspiration during this period. Strangely enough, there are very few traces in France of the artist’s stay, certain museums having even refused his works (see article in French)…
After returning to Germany, he was noticed by the Secession movement in Berlin, participating in their exhibitions between 1908 and 1912, with compositions where the perspective is not respected, scales blend and each figure is observed from a different viewpoint. Again renewing his work, he then involved himself with the artists of Die Brücke, attracted by the immediacy of Expressionism. Louder, more unbalanced, the canvases of this period convey anxiety and the viewer thus moves from Carnival to Riot (ill. 3 and 4).

5. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
Green Bridge II, 1916
Oil on Canvas - 125.4 x 100.3 cm
Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art
Photo : Succession Lyonel Feininger
SODRAC (2011)

6. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
Bathers on the Beach I, 1912
Oil on Canvas - 50.5 x 65.7 cm
Cambridge (Massachusetts),
Harvard Art Museums, Busch-Reisinger Museum
Photo : Succession Lyonel Feininger
SODRAC (2011)
President and Fellows of Harvard College

Back in Paris, the discovery of Cubism at the Salon des indépendants in 1911 came as a revelation ; he was in fact to produce a very personal interpretation of it. As Barbara Haskell explains in the catalogue, Feininger “understood that this way of reducing objects to angular and geometric shapes, of treating the void and masses as virtually equivalent allowed [the artist] to create an impression of volume without resorting to shading.” (ill. 5 and 6).
However, Feininger remained loyal to figurative art, because the study of the world according to him allows us to perceive the divine, even if this demands a “veritable and humble work based on nature”. For this very reason, he joined the Blaue Reiter group in September 1913 accepting Franz Marc’s invitation, now drawn to a more spiritual approach to art.

7. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
Gelmeroda XIII, 1936
Oil on Canvas -100.3 x 80.3 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum
Photo : 2010 (ARS) New York
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

8. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
The Bird Cloud, 1926
Oil on Canvas - 43.8 x 71.1 cm
Cambridge (Massachusetts)
Harvard Art Museums, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge
Photo : Succession Lyonel Feininger
SODRAC (2011)
Harvard College

Whereas human figures invade his early canvases, they progressively disappear, leaving room for an ever-more dominant architecture, in hues of brown, green and blue, all in a cold, frozen atmosphere. The church of Gelmeroda became a constant motif in the artist’s work, dematerializing the building through an effect of transparency and the feeling that it is lit from inside (ill. 7).
In April 1919, Feininger began teaching at the Bauhaus at the request of Gropius and when the school moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925, he followed but after being dispensed from the task of teaching which weighed on him. Here his pictorial production underwent a break with his past work, a result of a stay on the Baltic in 1922. The painter loved the water and its landscapes ; he undertook the challenge of interpreting “the colored air” of the seaside, its silence and grandeur, creating luminous seascapes where small figures seem lost, recalling of course Friedrich’s painting and the religious feeling stemming from the contemplation of nature (ill. 8). He often went to Deep, a fishing village on the Pomerania coast where he liked the empty beaches and an atmosphere he described as an “architecture space”.

9. Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
The Spell, 1951
Oil on Canvas - 76.2 x 60.9 cm
Geraldine S. Kunstadter Collection
Photo : Succession Lyonel Feininger
SODRAC (2011)

10. View of the exhibition Feininger
at the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montréal
Photo : BBSG

After the Nazi takeover, Feininger’s paintings along with those of other artists were defamed, exhibited in a “chamber of horrors”. Finally, a few weeks before the inauguration of the exhibition “Degenerate art” of July 1937, Feininger returned to the United States after spending over fifty years in Germany. His first years were difficult ones, his home town of New York had been transformed, skyscrapers had risen and the artist did not enjoy the same celebrity he had in Germany. His entire life was spent torn between the two, considered as a German artist in the States, an “American” in Germany. He found his first subjects in his memories, representing sailboats and the Baltic sea, then set down Manhattan on his canvases, a luminous and immaterial space (ill. 9 and 10). Finally, in October 1944, the MOMA organized the first Feinenger retrospective to take place in his homeland. He painted a few more canvases such as Lights at Sunset before passing away in 1956.

Curator : Barbara Haskell

Collective work under the supervision of Barbara Haskell, Lyonel Feininger, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Whitney, Somogy Editions d’art, 2011, 278 p., 38€. ISBN : 9782757204832.

Visitor information : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, 1379, rue Sherbrooke, Montreal, open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, lundi 6 février 2012


[1] The museum has also planned a musical program around the fugue.

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