So stuffed full of creativity was Lyonel Feininger’s life that even its 84 years seem too short. So says Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele about the life and work of one of America and Germany’s most prolific and enigmatic artists, whose little known photographs are now showing at the Getty.
Feininger took up the camera late in late, at the age of 57-- after decades of avant garde work as a print maker, painter, sculptor, musician and even, just over a century ago, a featured Sunday cartoonist in the Chicago Tribune.
He had a peculiar binationality. He was born in New York of German and American parents, but they sent him to Germany for school and he stayed there until Hitler forced him out nearly 50 years later. Trained as a musician, he found his fulfillment in the amazingly innovative world of turn of the century French and German art — the world of Kandinsky and Franz Marc and the movement called Expressionism. And he found fame as an illustrator for major publications on two continents. And sired two families, one of whose members, his son Lux, died at age 101 this July. Some of Lux’s pictures, taken when he was a teenager, are on show here too. The one of the Bauhaus movement’s official jazz band, just rocking out, is to die for.
Lyonel took a huge number of photographs, most of which we’re just beginning to see due to the diligent research here and in Germany. Many of those at the Getty are from his days (and nights) at the Bauhaus, the pioneering 1920s avant garde institute, whose stark architectural novelty has since become a fundamental cliché of Southern California buildings. But Feininger’s pictures of the structure, many of them by night, make the Bauhaus seem unworldly, even ethereal—shadow plays of brilliant light, gloom and utter darkness, they make you feel the strangeness this new style had 80 years ago.
These light-and-dark photos influenced Feininger’s later style paintings … the ones most familiar to us today — geometric building shapes overlaid in mysterious dark colors and angular flashes of light. As Curator Laura Muir points out, “He painted all day; he took photographs at night.” When did he sleep? We don’t know—but he did take pictures during the day on family outings to a German Baltic town called Deep—now the Polish resort hamlet of Mrzezyno.
Over the peaceful antiquity of these beautifully composed shots, though, you get a strong sense of dread. It was the early 1930s, and Hitler’s shadow lies long across the landscape. The blackness closing in around the Bauhaus in Feininger’s pictures seems to connote Naziism, closing in on Weimar Germany’s progress and freedom. A few years later, Feininger took his family to the New York he’d left 50 years before—whose soaring architecture of the 1930s he eagerly captured, perhaps emblematically, in the urban daylight.
The show at the Getty wisely intersperses drawings and watercolors of Feininger among the photos, so you can better grasp the multiferous directions in which his art was taking him. And as Muir points out, this alluring show is just the tip of the Feininger photo pyramid. Thousands of his later slides and negatives are filed away unseen, awaiting another splendid show like this. Maybe it can include those alluring 1900s comic strips—The Kin-der Kids and Wee Willie Winky.