One of the most versatile talents of the modern art movement in Germany, the American-born Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) is celebrated as a master of caricature, figurative painting, and a distinctive brand of cubism, but he also created a fascinating body of photographic work that is virtually unknown. Drawn primarily from the collections at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the exhibition Lyonel Feininger: Photographs, 1928–1939, presented at the Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, through June 2, 2012, offers the first opportunity to consider his achievement within the medium. Around 60 of Feininger’s photographs, as well as related works on paper and two of his early cameras, are on display. The exhibition was curated by Laura Muir, Assistant Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, Harvard Art Museums. Muir also authored the accompanying catalogue. artes fine arts magazine
The photographs are complemented by an installation of about twenty-five of the artist’s drawings and watercolors, plus a major painting from the collection of Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum. The Harvard exhibition is the latest—but probably not the last—in a series of Feininger retrospectives offered by various museums in Europe and the U.S. in recent months. Each has been a re-examination of aspects of a rich and varied artistic career—painter and composer, caricaturist and wood carver, an oeuvre spanning several decades—as the artist stood at the cusp of the modern era. As this exhibit has traveled from Berlin to Munich to Los Angeles’s Getty over the last year, this final stop in the tour represents the return home of this rare collection.
No stranger to conflict and controversy, the trajectory of Feininger’s life was constantly impacted by events, both political and cultural. Born in New York City, he returned to Germany at the age of sixteen (1887) to become a leading figure in the German Expressionist movement and the Bauhaus School.
Laura Muir notes that, “Feininger’s status as an artist in Germany had reached new heights in the early 1930s, when his work was the subject of several major exhibitions; among them a well-received retrospective organized in honor of his sixtieth birthday in 1931 by the Nationalgalerie at the Kronprinzenpaliais in Berlin. His success as a modern artist, however, also made him a target of the National Socialists, who increased their attacks on the avant-garde after coming to power in 1933.”
Having left Dessau, home of the Bauhaus School, in that same year, the Feiningers took up residence in Berlin. Laboring under the effects of the Nazi ban on ‘degenerate modern art,’ Muir explains that, “Feininger responded to the ‘systematic suppression of cultural elements’ by further engaging his immediate surroundings with his camera. He continued to take his camera out onto the streets, but also produced many photographs within the confines of his own home, often photographing from the window of his second-floor Berlin apartment.” The reliance on interior, harshly-lit shots and the shadows and soft atmospheric glow of his streetlight photographs during this period evokes earlier works (1928-29) and may reflect yet another period in the artist’s life when alienation and isolation are an ever-present and threatening reality.
By the late 1930s, the escalating Nazi campaign against modern art finally forced him to flee back to New York, after an absence of fifty years. As a result, his painterly marriage of abstraction and recognizable imagery, particularly architecture, seascapes and figurative works, became a readily-recognizable style on the American cultural scene. It was also in this period that he produced a series of photographs of New York City at the peak of its Golden Age, during and immediately following World War II.
The Arthur M. Sackler exhibition, though, focuses on the productive, late-in-life period between 1928 (when Feininger first took up the camera while still in Germany) and the late 1930s, when he was exploring an array of avant-garde photographic techniques and making his own prints. Despite his early skepticism about this “mechanical” medium, the painter was inspired by the enthusiasm of his sons Andreas and T. Lux, as well as the innovative work of his fellow Bauhaus master and Dessau neighbor László Moholy-Nagy. In the fall of 1928, the 57-year-old Feininger began to conduct his own experiments, discovering in photography a new means of energizing and advancing his artistic program.
Muir’s research also draws on Feininger’s extensive correspondence housed at Houghton Library and her interviews with the artist’s recently-deceased son, T. Lux. The majority of Feininger’s photographs, which he shared with only a few close friends and family, remained in his private collection until his death in 1956. In 1987 his son T. Lux donated them to Houghton Library. The exhibition also includes key loans from other US and German lenders, including the Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.
“When he took up the camera at the Bauhaus in 1928, Lyonel Feininger was at the height of his fame as a painter. While he remained committed to that practice, he saw photography as a new means of exploring his interests in reflections, transparency, and the effects of light and shadow,” said Muir. “Experimenting with night imagery, negative printing, multiple exposures, and radical enlarging and cropping, he created a strikingly modern yet surprisingly personal body of work that has remained virtually unknown.”
Feininger’s first photographs were atmospheric night views of the Bauhaus Building and the nearby neighborhood, including Untitled (Night View of Trees and Streetlamp, Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau) (1928) [see catalogue cover, below] and Bauhaus (Mar. 26, 1929). In Halle, while working on a painting commission from the city, Feininger recorded architectural sites in works such as Halle Market with the Church of St. Mary and the Red Tower (1929–30), and experimented with multiple exposures in photographs such as Untitled (Street Scene, Double Exposure, Halle) (1929–30), a hallucinatory image that merges two views of pedestrians and moving vehicles. One of his Halle paintings, Bölbergasse (1931), makes an appearance in Untitled (Unfinished Painting in Studio, Halle) (1931), an image that explores the relationship between the canvas and the space in which it was created.
During summers in Deep an der Rega, a small fishing village on the Baltic Coast (in present-day Poland), he returned to his longtime subjects of seascapes and bathers in photographs such as Untitled (Lux Feininger, Deep an der Rega) (1932), a lively snapshot of his son suspended above the water in a back flip.
Curator, Muir notes in her catalogue essay: “Earlier that summer Feininger had noted the appearance of swastika flags on the beach, which signaled the end of Deep as a peaceful refuge. Despite deteriorating conditions, Feininger returned to the town for the next three summers. In 1935, however, after several run-ins with a local Nazi official over Julia’s Jewish background, it became clear that [his] time there had come to and end. In September, 1935, he described to Julia, who had stayed away from Deep that year, how the Nazis were building a ‘city of barracks’ in ‘our dune forest,’ adding: ‘we never should again feel happy here, so let us not regret too much. It is unwholesome to hang one’s heart so on a locality, after it has been ‘murdered’.”
In the months after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus and prior to Feininger’s departure from Dessau in March 1933, he made a series of unsettling views of mannequins and reflections in shop windows such as Drunk with Beauty (1932). In 1937 the American-born Feininger permanently settled in New York City after a nearly 50-year absence, and photography served as an important means of reacquainting himself with the city. The off-kilter bird’s-eye view he made from his studio Untitled (Second Avenue El from Window of 235 East 22nd Street, New York) (1939) is a dizzying image of an American subject in the style of European avant-garde photography, and mirrors the artist’s own precarious and disorienting position between two worlds and the past and present.
Muir points out that, “For a painter who took up the camera late in life, photography provided Feininger not only artistic stimulation, but a new sense of vitality that inspired him into his final years. He saw it as a new means of picture-making—a tool of painting. Adopting the innovative techniques of his contemporary, László Moholy-Nagy, he was able to address his own distinct vision and artistic concerns. With the camera, these rarely-seen images represent an innovative body of work that is sophisticated and modern, but also enigmatic, expressive and deeply personal.”
Image, right: Untitled (Second Avenue El from Window of 235 East 22nd Street, New York), 1939.
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
The exhibition, Lyonel Feininger: Photographs, 1928-1939 is on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA until June 2, 2012.
Winner, German Photo Book Award in Gold 2012: The Feininger photographs catalogue has been awarded gold by the German Photo Book prize 2012. The jury referred to Lyonel Feininger: Photographs, 1928–1939 as a “small, but sparkling art historical treasure.” It is available in both English and German translations. To order by email, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Essay by Laura Muir, Assistant Curator, Busch-Reisinger Museum
cloth (paper over board); 152 pages; 111 color illus.; 8×10-3/4 in
$45 ($40.50 for members)
Published by the Harvard Art Museums and Hatje Cantz Verlag.
This book is available in a German edition, ISBN 978-3-7757-2788-4.
The exhibition and catalogue are based on new research on the collection of the artist’s negatives and slides in the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Lyonel Feininger Archive, which has only recently been catalogued and digitized, making it fully accessible for the first time (see link, below).
Online Resource: Lyonel Feininger: Photographs provides access to a searchable database of more than 18,000 negatives and slides housed in the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Lyonel Feininger Archive. The site also includes slideshows, information about Feininger’s photographic subjects, and a chronology. More at www.harvardartmuseums.org/feiningerphotographs