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Lyonel Feininger (American, 1871–1956)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Painter, printmaker and illustrator. Although he was sent to Germany as a teenager to study music, a drawing class at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg instead sparked an interest in art, which led to further training at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and in 1892–3 at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. Returning to Berlin, he was a prominent illustrator by the mid-1890s for Ulk, Lustige Blätter and other leading German satirical magazines. His work also appeared in the USA, first for Harper’s Round Table in 1894 and 1895 and in 1906–7 in the comic strips ‘The Kin-der-Kids’ and ‘Wee Willie Winkie’s World’ for the Chicago Sunday Tribune, by which time he was again in Paris. There he was also in contact with Wilhelm Uhde, Jules Pascin and other members of the circle that met at the Café du Dôme and produced a series of drawings for Le Témoin. While often alluding to serious contemporary issues, the style of his illustrations and drawings was fanciful rather than grotesque.

Seeking more creative freedom after first-hand exposure to the French avant-garde, Feininger gave up illustration for painting when he returned to Germany in 1908. Most of his early oil paintings, such as Emeute (1910; New York, MOMA), are street scenes with numerous figures, which combine his already sensitive use of line and shape with the spatial exaggeration and bold colours favoured by the Fauves and his fellow Berlin Secessionists (with whom he had first exhibited in 1903–4). After his first experience of Cubism at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 and subsequent contact with major German Expressionist groups, including Die Brücke in 1912 and the Blaue Reiter, with whom he exhibited in the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon a year later, he concentrated on landscapes; although they remained intensely luminous, they were more formally ordered by an underlying network of precisely modulated, intersecting planes (e.g. Bridge I, 1913; St Louis, MO, Washington U., Gal. A.). Despite difficulties as a foreigner during World War I, he held his first one-man show at Herwarth Walden’s Sturm-Galerie in 1917 and showed with other innovators at the Galerie Dada, Zurich.

After the war Feininger joined the Novembergruppe, through which he met Walter Gropius. When Gropius established the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 he invited Feininger to become the first form master in charge of the school’s printmaking workshop. Feininger’s prints, especially his woodcuts, enhanced many Bauhaus publications, including the cover of its original manifesto, Cathedral of Socialism (1919; New York, MOMA). Despite the demands of teaching, his skills as a painter also evolved. His landscapes increasingly featured architectural motifs that ranged from picturesque village buildings, as in Ober-Weimar (1921; Rotterdam, Boymans–van Beuningen), to monumental medieval churches, such as Gelmeroda VIII (1920–21; New York, Whitney). In these, he effectively coupled a penetrating vision of the contemporary world characteristic of Cubism with romantic patches of colour that affirmed his personal reverence for such subjects; moreover, the contrapuntal tenor of this imagery reflected his enduring interest in music and, more specifically, the 13 fugues for organ that he composed during the same period.

In 1925, with Alexei Jawlenski, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky, Feininger formed the Blue four, which made its début at the Charles Daniel Gallery in New York. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau a year later, Feininger followed as artist-in-residence without teaching responsibilities, so that he was free to concentrate on painting. His architectural landscapes, such as Church of the Minorites II (1926; Minneapolis, MN, Walker A. Cent.), and a growing number of seascapes inspired by the Baltic or memories of the American coast, such as the Glorious Victory of the Sloop ‘Maria’ (1926), assumed a physical and emotional grandeur unprecedented in his work. Important recognition ensued when he was included in MOMA’s inaugural Paintings by 19 Living Americans (1929) and given a large solo exhibition by the Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1931). However, later seascapes, some set at night with storm-tossed ships (e.g. Four-Mast Bark and Schooner, 1934; New York, Guggenheim), others strangely vacant except for small isolated figures (e.g. Dunes at Eventide, 1936; New York, Guggenheim), seemed to express a deepening concern over the forced closing of the Bauhaus, the spread of Fascism across Europe and ultimately the Nazis’ public display of his own and other modern art as ‘degenerate’ (see Entartete Kunst).

In 1937 Feininger left Germany for California, where he taught for a term at Mills College, Oakland, before resettling permanently in New York. Except for murals designed for two buildings at the World’s Fair in 1938, Marine Transportation and Masterpieces of Modern Art (destr.; sketches, ARTnews, 1939), two years passed before he resumed painting. The rough texture, grainy contours and relatively subdued colour of his late German style at first carried into his American work, which varied from wistful recollections of pre-war Europe, for example Cathedral (Cammin) (1942; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.), to tentative efforts to pictorialize the vast scale and new energy of his native city, as in Manhattan I (1940; New York, MOMA). Encouraged by Curt Valentin and by major prizes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Worcester Art Museum, MA, Feininger’s confidence gradually returned. By 1944, the year of his joint retrospective with Marsden Hartley at MOMA, his New York imagery, for example in Manhattan, The Tower (1944; San Francisco, CA, MOMA), showed a graphic purity and aerial radiance akin to the mystical ‘white writing’ of his friend Mark Tobey. The following summer he accepted his former Bauhaus colleague Josef Albers’s invitation to serve as guest instructor at Black Mountain College, Lake Eden, NC. Late in his career he was elected president of the Federation of American Painters and Sculptors and honoured with membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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