In June 1937, a month short of sixty-six, Lyonel Feininger stepped off the boat in America. How strange it must have looked, and what attachments and fears he had left behind. He had left Germany, where he had lived for fifty years in small towns and growing cities. He had left a home on the Baltic, whose cold vistas had stood for unachievable longings and a national character since Romanticism. He identified all his life with the art, music, and village fabric of nineteenth-century Europe.
He was privileged to escape the Nazis, but he had predicted first impressions of the New World long before. As a commercial artist in 1904, he had turned out a lithograph of The First Salutation in New York Harbor. It shows a man in shadow, overwhelmed by a dark sky, electric clouds, a jagged and empty skyline, a thuggish Statue of Liberty, and the "first salutation" in blood-red capitals: Check, please! Later, as a painter in America, he only slowly put aside memories of home to grapple with that skyline.
He had little choice. The Nazis had closed the Bauhaus in 1933, putting him out of a job. His second wife was Jewish, and he had flirted with Expressionism. Either alone would have earned him a place in the notorious show of "degenerate art," soon after he left. Only one difference: Feininger was born in New York and an American citizen.
He never gave up his citizenship, and it came in handy. It allowed him to sit out the devastation of World War I, in life as well as in his art. It must have helped in 1937, when other countries turned their back on far too many refugees, especially Jews. (He had also taught the summer before at Mills College in Northern California.) Back in 1906 he had a brief gig as a cartoonist for the Chicago Sunday Tribune. In between, all sorts of things got in the way of repatriation—the war, divorce and remarriage, and steady work at the Bauhaus.
Was Feininger an American artist all along? The Whitney makes a case for just that. It quotes the artist calling himself "a typical American." The museum boasts of a retrospective full enough to include cartoons. It speaks the language of the American dream, of self-renewal and government by the people, when it calls the cartoons "a new and more democratic" art. It points to his late focus on Manhattan architecture till his death in 1956.
For Barbara Haskell, who also curated the Whitney's "American Century," his American spirit shines through. He never lost his innocence, optimism, and faith in ingenuity. Yet these only made him that much more of an exile—not just from his native New York, but from "the 'lost happiness' of his childhood." Perhaps, but one might see him better not as an exile, but as cosmopolitan. It drew him to Europe, its follies, and its cultural traditions. It kept him at arm's length first from German Expressionism, "Degenerate Art," and then from a German civilization heading for its own ruins.
In a way, he was a European before he was an artist. He grew up in a cosmopolitan city, the son of German-Americans. His father, a violinist, and music educator, traveled widely—and he himself headed off to Germany at sixteen to study music. Instead of family tradition, though, he found freedom and another cosmopolitan ideal, modernity. He found success as an illustrator. The visual arts also brought him into contact with the first modern art movement in Germany, Die Brücke in Dresden.
He was well into his thirties when he took up painting in 1907. That may explain why he was of the movement but not altogether for it. His early paintings have its tart colors, distorted bodies, sudden leaps in scale, and flattened spaces. Buildings press in on disturbingly open intersections. Here everyone is on parade and everyone—male or female, overfed or unnaturally thin—is a streetwalker. Like Erich Heckel and others, too, he experimented with woodcuts for their harsh outlines and decisive break with polished realism.
For them, though, the movement was a turning away from the present, to a primitive sexuality in a fallen Eden. For Feininger, the style let loose the sharp eye of a caricaturist. He is having fun, just as in his surprisingly untroubled cartoons of a kid on the loose for the Trib. Only once, and not until in 1915, does he try out the fleshy, heavily rouged portraiture of Emil Nolde. He sees a new century as the site of change, where expressionist color and massed humanity meet the soft browns and hulking shadows of budding skyscrapers. Railroads, viaducts, and pedestrian bridges overlook the human procession, and the only primal urge is to look.
And look he does, most especially to Modernism. During the war, he experiments with the loose curves and saturated primaries of Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and the Blue Rider. Even earlier, he finds his calling in Cubism, thanks in part to his exhibiting at the Salon des Independents in 1911. He applies its planes to the same urban themes as before—at least once, to the very same composition. The gas lights on the bridge now glow with almost incandescent colors. Then, too, his street scenes had moved between Germany and France from the start, as if he already knew to look to Paris.
He recovers his cosmopolitan roots in another way as well, in the Romantic imagination. One can almost hear the violins. The Cubist prism lets in northern light, and it locks in place a ship at sea. Here Feininger copies the ship locked in ice of Caspar David Friedrich and Romanticism, and he will return to it again and again. Cliffs and sailing ships run up against "high houses" and what an earlier title called City at the Edge of the World. The acid colors seep away for good.
Like much of German Expressionism, he was always the moralist and always looking back, only not nearly as far. Forget lost utopias, overheated desires, and misogyny. His urban parade goes back to the medieval carnival, complete with Jesuits and children's games out of Pieter Bruegel. He is at home in cities and Cubism because he is at home in European tradition. One can see German Modernism as the past shattered once and for all, French Modernism as recovering what Paul Cézanne called the art of the museums. Feininger adapts Expressionism to Cubism and Cubism to Germany.
With commercial art behind him, he mostly loses interest in politics. Like Max Beckmann well before Beckmann in New York, many German artists served at the front and lived from then on with its violence. He can avoid army service as a resident alien, and war never appears in his paintings. Nor does the financial crisis and labor unrest. In a self-portrait, pudgy but Cubist, he looks askance on everything. It is a privilege and a blessing.
He also seems to lose his sense of humor, although not his pleasures in child's games. He starts a forty-year project of translating his townscape into sculpture, like Alexander Calder two floors above at the Whitney. Initially, a toy manufacturer commissioned it. As ever, he is mediating a divided continent. It is a diorama, a plaything for family, or Calder's Circus, but in the raw German shapes of hacked wood. As the museum points out, painting materials had grown scarce during World War I anyway.
Most of all, war came as a release. His art settled down, while the avant-garde caught up. He joined the Bauhaus faculty early on and stayed with it. He tries his hand at photography, on the grounds of the Bauhaus or his home nearby. Naturally, the scenes are off kilter but geometric, in a façade or rows of trees. Naturally, too, they are always spare, always outdoors, and always at night.
With the 1920s, his painting settles down. It also makes peace between Classicism, Romanticism, and Cubism. The Bauhaus was about making design and photography respectable and making the principles of fine art available to anyone who will listen. For Feininger, commercial art was behind him, and paintings are what matters. He continues his earlier motifs, but without a hint of caricature. Urban architecture remains and evolves, while the human carnival all but vanishes.
The buildings and people provide bright color, while the Cubist sky provides a quiet glow. Light saturates the powerful architecture, which reaches to the edge of the canvas. Sunlight floods a church square as if through windows above an altar. The viaduct is back, but on the scale of Gothic arches. Broken Glass approaches abstraction. Paintings are more often vertical in format, and they look larger than they are.
By 1930, he is on the Baltic Ocean. In place of public squares and framing arches, the horizontal canvases contrast land, sky, and sea. Friedrich is evident, too, in tiny watchers along the shore and a single-minded focus on sailing ships—not exactly the kind of boat that would take refugees to New York harbor. For all the growing alienation from modernity, though, this decade has the most affinities with Modernism in America. The flat, angular Cubist planes resemble the industrial plants of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler.
Still, they are almost the only hint of American art in Feininger's career, and it is surely coincidental. Back in America for nearly twenty years, he is at sea—and now in more ways than one. For some time he paints the same towns and seascapes, as if he had never left Europe. When Manhattan finally shows up, it looks old-fashioned by comparison. Decades before, he had described clean skylines that hardly existed yet. Now actual skyscrapers have awkward, unsteady silhouettes.
He is working from memory, which does happen in one's old age, but he always remembered. His last works in Europe have as much to do with German tradition as with "degenerate art." If that earned him no favors on either side, that alone says something. Feininger needed caricature to find Modernism, and he needed to outgrow caricature to continue. He stood between and apart from nations, which makes him a fitting emblem of the avant-garde. Modernism was more than cold institutions and exclusive art all along.
Was he ever really "a typical American"? He joined movement after movement, and adapted one to the next. He found exile at least three times—in Germany, on the Baltic, and then back in New York. He had his most majestic work by far with the biting humor of his early carnival and the stasis of the 1920s. Cosmopolitan back then had to do with both the European canon and with crossing boundaries. And the conflicts between them have relevance after all for a newly global art today.
"Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through October 16, 2011.