The Zelig of Early Modernism

Lyonel Feininger at the Whitney Museum of American Art Through October 16

Carnival in Arcueil, 1911, oil on canvas, 41 3⁄10

This welcome and overdue retrospective of Lyonel Feininger, subtitled “At the Edge of the World,” brings many surprises. Born in New York in 1871, Feininger ended up spending his most creative years—some 50 of them—in Germany, where he went at the age of 16 to study music. His career, his reputation, and ultimately his art all reflect this at once displaced and cosmopolitan background.

Leading a somewhat Zelig-like existence, Feininger seems to have been present at every landmark artistic moment, always perhaps a step or two behind but absorbing and synthesizing and creating something uniquely his. He decided against pursuing music professionally, and instead turned a talent for caricature into an early, successful, and lucrative career as a newspaper cartoonist. Around the turn of the century, he worked for German newspapers and had a brief stint sending comic strips to the Chicago Sunday Tribune, for which he created the characters Wee Willie Winkie and the Kin-der-Kids.

Feininger’s caricature style carried over to his early paintings, the colorful van Gogh–influenced scenes of German town life, with distorted characters dressed in stovepipe hats rushing around chaotically. There are many instances, such as in Carnival in Arcueil (1911) and Uprising (1910), where Feininger seems to prefigure American expressionist artists like Lester Johnson, Carmen Cicero, and even R. Crumb, with characters almost “trucking” down the streets.

The artist’s transition from this style to that of his later paintings, for which he is best known, came about gradually. Influenced initially by Fauvism and German Expressionism (though he never displayed the savageness of, say, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner), then Cubism and especially, it would seem, Futurism, he ended up making his own sublime update of German Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. A long stint at the Bauhaus led to a purification of his style. Whether evoking his beloved Baltic sea (Sunset at Deep, 1930) or Gothic church and cathedral spires, epitomized in his “Gelmeroda” series, named after a German town with an impressive steeple, Feininger created a signature style consisting of faceted, crystalline surfaces of thin paint. As the exhibition’s curator, Barbara Haskell, points out, this painter-musician’s “multiple, harmonically interconnected planes of diaphanous color“ were also influenced by musical structures, such as those of Bach’s fugues.

In 1937, with World War II looming, Feininger finally made his long-sought return to a vastly changed United States. His spiritually infused, almost architectonic paintings created a tranquil point in a life that had seen major historical and personal shifts. They still bring a sense of calm and awe.

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