A Visionary Cubist

Lyonel Feininger: Caricature & Fantasy

by Ernst Scheyer
Wayne State, 196 pp., $15.00

Lyonel Feininger
Lyonel Feininger; drawing by David Levine

The strength of the German artistic tradition has always been its graphic rigor. For pure painterly values, for pictorial conceptions that allow finer shades of feeling than the graphic alone can ever fully accommodate, German artists have had to look elsewhere—to Italy or Spain or France or, more recently, the United States. The work that has resulted from this confrontation of graphic genius with alien pictorial traditions has sometimes been magnificent, and not at all a mere rehearsal of received style; the oeuvres of Lovis Corinth, Paul Klee, and Max Beckmann, among others, are ample testimony to the fact. Yet the free play of painterly sensibility has never taken hold. Every generation of German artists has had to begin again from the beginning, suffering the frisson of the painterly tradition as a fresh shock and acquiring its resources only through painful personal growth.

This confrontation was particularly crucial for the artists who came of age in the decade preceding the First World War, the decade in which the School of Paris was at the height of its powers. In a purely formal sense, modern German art can be divided between those artists who found in Fauvism—and in the gods the Fauvists especially favored: Gauguin and Van Gogh—the necessary impetus to a style of their own, and those who, eschewing the emotional freedom of Fauvism, adopted Cubism as a more viable and universal grammar of form. The one resulted in Expressionism, which, for all its mysticism and otherworldly aspiration, was a style addressed to the things of this world. The other produced a kind of metaphysical Cubism which used the formal devices of this most Parisian style as a scaffolding for exploring an imaginative empyrean in which there was no clear demarcation between the world of spirit and the world of matter.

The principal exponent of this metaphysical Cubism was Paul Klee, whose observation, “In my work, man is not a species but a cosmic point,” can be taken as its motto. Lyonel Feininger’s remark (in a letter to Mark Tobey), that “What I want to do is capture some of the cosmic wonders,” places him unmistakably in this line. Yet Feininger’s gifts, like Klee’s, were formed in the German graphic mold, whose procedures and assumptions place it at a pole far removed from the Cartesian refinements of Cubist aesthetics. Feininger’s development from a talented cartoonist and illustrator into a painter fully cognizant of the most momentous revolutions in modern form thus constitutes for the critic a peculiarly interesting case of an artist who reformed his entire outlook on art while remaining completely loyal to his own sensibility. There are some dramatic turns in Feininger’s development, but none of those dispiriting tergiversations by means of which certain of his contemporaries felt at liberty to re-invent their personalities at the onset of every shift in aesthetic fashion.

Feininger has been fortunate in his expositors.…

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