Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lyonel Feininger: Neglected in America

Lyonel Feininger Self-Portrait
It's raining in New York so it's time to visit a Museum. Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World is the first American retrospective of Lyonel Feininger's work in 45 years. It's currently showing at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Well-known in Germany, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) was an American born artist who left the United States at sixteen to study music in Leipzig but discovered that art was his true calling. Feininger lived in Germany for 50 years before returning to the United States in 1937 when life under the Nazi regime became increasingly difficult. He was an influential leader in German Expressionism and was an early member of the Bauhaus movement; but interestingly, he started his career as a commercial artist specializing in comics.

Avenue of Trees
A true renaissance man, Feininger composed music, tried his hand at photography, and was an accomplished wood-cutter. Much of Feininger's work deals with the theme of being an outsider. In Germany, he was known as the “the American,” and in the United States he was called “the German.” Unfortunately, he was never accepted in either country. During World War I, Feininger remained in Germany, but he had to report daily to the police as an enemy alien despite having a German wife and being a well-respected member of the German art community.

Surprisingly, Feininger was so unknown in the United States during his lifetime that the Whitney owns only one of his paintings. In fact, the Whitney Museum of American Art wasn't initially interested in the work of a “German” painter. It's somewhat ironic that one of America's foremost painters was neglected in his own country, only to be “discovered” after his death.

Avenue of Trees depicts a solitary man walking along a tree lined path. The trees seem like jail bars trapping the man. Again, this painting touches on Feininger's familiar theme of being an outsider, isolated from the community. Here, Feininger's style is "prism-ism"-- his term for cubism. In Feininger's view, prism-ism is less abstract and more decipherable that cubism.

Jesuits depicts two common figures found in a number of Feininger's work: the prostitute and the Jesuit priest. As a young man, Feininger attended a Jesuit school where the Jesuits (often considered outsiders themselves) imparted a philosophy of unilateral love and acceptance (even for prostitutes). Here, Feininger uses arches instead of geometric prisms. In my opinion, the use of aches gives the work a more natural and organic feeling. 

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