New York

Lyonel Feininger, In a Village Near Paris (Street in Paris, Pink Sky), 1909, oil on canvas, 39 3/4 x 32".

Lyonel Feininger, In a Village Near Paris (Street in Paris, Pink Sky), 1909, oil on canvas, 39 3/4 x 32".

Lyonel Feininger

Whitney Museum of American Art

Lyonel Feininger, In a Village Near Paris (Street in Paris, Pink Sky), 1909, oil on canvas, 39 3/4 x 32".

Having lived and worked in Germany for more than half his life, Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) was something of an unlikely American. This exhibtion—his first major retrospective in the United States in forty-five years—makes a strong case for the importance of his work to the stateside avant-garde, albeit filtered indirectly back across the Atlantic before the artist’s own, eventual return to his native New York. Born to a German father and an American mother, Feininger moved to Berlin as a young man after a sojourn in Hamburg. He returned to the States only in 1937, by which time Hitler’s government had rendered the avant-garde a political liability, displaying Feininger’s canvases in its infamous parade of “Degenerate” horrors. By then, the artist’s career had unfolded in sync with some of the century’s most consequential aesthetic tendencies: from the Secessionist set in Berlin, to Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, the more radical Novembergruppe, and, most prominently, the Bauhaus in Weimar, for which Walter Gropius personally tapped him.

Feininger’s woodcut Cathedral, 1919—on view here—graced the school’s founding manifesto, and persists as an icon of twentieth-century utopia, a nexus of metaphorical collectivity and soaring geometries alike. The century’s first decade had already seen him influenced by the utopian inclinations of German Expressionism; the exhibition’s first gallery exploded in a gamut of flattened, colored planes, which envy nothing of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Otto Mueller’s vibrant idylls. Feininger’s vision, however, remains more consistently urban, though steeped less in the pleasures or anxieties of the contemporary than in a Biedermeier-era quaintness. From the lanky, impastoed The White Man, 1907, to a range of small-town carnival scenes, his images are populated with caricatural, bourgeois anatomies. Even at its most incisive, Feininger’s gravitas is leavened by his experience as a commercial illustrator. Having been recruited by an editor for the Chicago Tribune (when that city still teemed with German immigrants and hence connections to the Continent), Feininger pioneered a sophisticated comic-book aesthetic in his drawings for Wee Willie Winkie’s World and The Kin-der-Kids. Even as it registers the menace stalking Weimar society by the 1930s, Feininger’s painting still appeals to local color; the portly jester in The Red Clown, 1919, reappears—more gaunt and in more threateningly spectral company—in The Red Fiddler, 1934.

Notwithstanding its charm, Feininger’s painting assimilated more worldly, hard-nosed tendencies, Cubism chief among them. It is Cubist faceting that, in 1911, tidied up the artist’s Expressionist forms. His Study on the Cliffs: Early Attempt at Cubist Form, 1912, guilelessly announces that transformation. The streets scenes that follow—whether the angular Jesuits II, 1913, or the near abstraction of Trumpeters, 1912—revise space into cleaner lineaments, even as they insist upon an interpenetration of bodies and their environment, whether structures or more metaphysical surroundings. Epitomizing that tendency are the “Gelmeroda” paintings, 1913–36, named after a small village near Weimar, whose church spire attracted Feininger as early as 1908 and held his attention over several decades and through evolving styles. A range of these works in the penultimate gallery demonstrated the importance of the motif, which straddles an early adaption of Cubist shards and later, persistent uses of architecture as a hitching post for more flighty intuitions. Even Feininger’s photographic experiments from the 1920s—influenced by both his time at the Bauhaus and the careers of his two photographer sons—cast an eye on twilit copses and shimmering streetlights.

The sharp refinement of that sensibility devolves somewhat in the late 1920s and after, verging at times on kitsch; textures reveal an almost airbrushed luminosity rather than the hard-edged mordancy through which his best work distinguishes itself. Even later works such as Sunset Fires, 1953, evoke a brooding haze more topical than formal. Incisive apprehensions of the city still occupied Feininger after his return to the US, however. Traced on a small white canvas, Courtyard III, 1949, consists of a spare lattice of intersecting lines, a humble architectonics that captures something of the unassuming relevance of Feininger’s career to postwar American abstraction. Whether through his Bauhaus contributions and their shaping of an international modernist canon, or the particular morphologies of his prismatic architectonics and geometries, Feininger’s work feels as abidingly consequential to American modernism as to the European avant-garde, in which it took definitive shape.

Ara H. Merjian