San Francisco

Lionel Feininger, “Graphics and Watercolors from the Scheyer Collection of the Pasadena Art Museum”

University Art Gallery, U.C. Berkeley

Exhibitions like this make one wonder how museum employees occupy their time. Here is a show consisting of only about thirty small works by a recognized and well documented artist, all of which belong to a single museum and were originally brought together by a single collector, who was a close friend of the artist; yet there is no catalog, half of the works are not dated (even approximately), and many of the titles are given unnecessarily in German. This last in spite of the fact that the artist spent the last twenty years of his life in this country—a fact that would escape the general public, since no one bothered to provide a resume of his career. What is it about the University of California? Surely a pedagogical institution should not be shy about dispensing a little learning along with pleasure; yet notice of this gallery’s failure to provide even minimal information on its shows is fast becoming a commonplace in these pages. (How staggeringly uninformative they can be should be clear from the fact that the show was billed as “etchings and watercolors” when, in fact, two-thirds of the pieces are woodcuts.)

Feininger, who was born in New York in 1871, went to Germany in 1887 and did not return to the United States until the mid-thirties; thus his career spanned the most fruitful period in modern German art. He was friendly with members of both the “Brucke” and “Blaue Reiter” Expressionist groups and was, moreover, the first painter to be invited by Gropius to teach at the Bauhaus in 1919. Feininger’s esthetic convictions were closely linked to those of the German Expressionists in that they were keyed to the belief in art as the formulation of private responses to external nature. He once described his intent as a need “to work clear of the shell of entangling, confusing multi-format of our time, in order to get to the kernel, the humane values which have to be called for out of the deep . . .” Given this concern for the revelation of an underlying natural order, it is not surprising that Feininger’s style has a cool, analytical aspect that is in marked contrast to the self-revelatory styles of so many of his friends or that he found his primary influences in Cubist and Futurist art. His initiation to Cubist formulas came through the Orphist, Delaunay in 1911, and out of this he quickly began to develop that structural, planar style that is illustrated here by the Peaceful Voyage III of 1933. None of the group of five etchings of 1911–1912 in the exhibition reflect the new interest, however. They are all in the whimsical drawing style he created out of “Jugendstil” traditions for his newspaper cartoons in the years before 1907—the Street in Bourg-le-Reine is characteristic. Statistically, woodcuts dominate the show; they are, however, the least interesting pieces. Feininger tried to adapt the brutal, gouging line of the Expressionist woodcut technique to his own orderly purposes with scant success. On the whole, these works reveal Feininger in a more intimate and friendly mood than we are accustomed to see.

Betty Breckenridge