Magazine article Artforum International

Lyonel Feininger: WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Magazine article Artforum International

Lyonel Feininger: WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Article excerpt

Having lived and worked in Germany for more than half his life, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) was something of an unlikely American. This exhibition--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 19,37, 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 Berhn, to Die Bricke, Der Blaue Reiter, the more radical November gruppe, 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 carnival, bourgeois anatomies. Even at its most incisive, Feininger's gravitas is leavened by his experience as a commercial illustrator. Having been recruited b\' 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 Winkle's World and The Kin-der-Kids. Even as it registers the menace stalking Weimar society by the I 930s, 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, 1 934. …

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