Catalog of the exhibition by Laura Muir
Harvard Art Museums/Hatje Cantz, 152 pp., $45.00
Lyonel Feininger: Drawings and Watercolors from the Julia Feininger Estate
About ten years ago I began seeing now and then, whether in books or galleries, fanciful and brilliantly colored pictures by Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) that—made when he was first painting, and showing people doing this or that—had an exuberant, even anarchic spirit that seemed at odds with his temperament. Like others, I suspect, I thought of the German-American painter as one of the somewhat retiring second lieutenants, so to speak, of modern art. He was an artist whose stylishly designed images of angular and elongated buildings seen in hushed moments and of stilled seacoasts had more substance than, say, the work of the now-little-known (and sometimes delightful) Jacques Villon but were less scintillating or forceful than pictures by Dufy or John Marin. Feininger was one of the first artists Walter Gropius appointed to be a “master” at the Bauhaus in 1919, and he remained there in different capacities for years. Yet it didn’t seem odd that in Nicholas Fox Weber’s richly detailed The Bauhaus Group (2009) we hear a lot about Klee, Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and others associated with the school while Feininger is mentioned only in passing.
Feininger is now the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney. Organized by Barbara Haskell, who is the principal author of its authoritative accompanying catalog, it is the only full-dress survey the artist has had in a New York museum since, unbelievably, 1944. It probably won’t radically change the way he is thought about. Yet it includes an eye-opening display of his early paintings (which had almost no part in his 1944 exhibition), and, taken along with some surprises from later in his life, it certainly makes one rethink his reputation. During the years 1907 to 1911, Feininger, it is now clear, had one of the most oddly brilliant beginnings of any twentieth-century painter. His works from this moment have an enchanted atmosphere and might hold a six-year-old’s attention, but they also capture the way fantasy and disquietude can coexist at any time.
From picture to picture we have little sense of what is coming next. Some of Feininger’s people, wearing comically massive crinolines or wildly elongated stovepipe hats, take us to the Romantic, or Biedermeier, period of the 1830s. The wonderful and wonderfully silly 1907 The Proposal (which is in the Whitney’s catalog but not in its show), where our foppish protagonist warily presents himself to three belles in a room with pink walls, is, oddly, a picture that manages to be absorbingly informative about early-nineteenth-century clothing while feeling totally contemporary to our eyes. Most of the pictures, though, are street scenes where the walkers (and streetwalkers) have more to do with the early-twentieth-century world—even while the buildings these people are surrounded by are hard to place in time …