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Lyonel Feininger

by Donald Kuspit
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As for Comedy, it is an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly.

-- Aristotle, Poetics, 5:31-34

Unbarr’d the gates of light.
-- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book VI, Line 2

Lyonel Feininger began his career as a cartoonist and illustrator -- a very successful one and a very original one. He was so successful that in 1906, after working for a dozen years in Germany, he was offered a job as a cartoonist at the Chicago Tribune, the largest circulation newspaper in the Midwest. He worked there for a year, inventing what became the standard design for the comic strip: in the words of John Carlin, “an overall pattern. . . that allowed the page to be read both as a series of elements one after the other, like language, and as a group of juxtaposed images, like visual art.”(1) His originality did not end there: he went on to become one of the great abstract painters. Like Kandinsky, music was his model, but Kandinsky only knew music from the outside -- as a listener (inspired initially by Wagner, then by Schoenberg) -- while Feininger knew it from the inside. He was born into a musical family -- his father was a violinist and composer, his mother was a singer and pianist, and at the age of 16 he left New York, where he was born (1871), to study music and visual art in Germany, from where his parents emigrated.

He studied violin with his father, and by the age of 12 he was performing in public, but he also drew incessantly, most notably the steamboats and sailing ships on the Hudson and East Rivers, and the landscape around Sharon, Conn., where he spent time on a farm owned by a family friend. Steamboats and sailing ships appear again and again in his later work. So do the “Connecticut hills against the Western sky” -- with its setting sun. But now its “wide valleys and solitary farms, barns, and the great old trees, amongst which the village church is nestled,” have been transposed to rural villages of Germany, as Feininger himself remarked.

The later works are nostalgic, but more to the artistic point they are illustrational as well as abstract -- abstract illustrations, even more pointedly, populist abstractions, that is, abstractions that appealed to the same masses who read the comic strips as well as to the esthetic cognoscenti who despised them. Comic strips were too “vulgar” to be taken seriously as art, but Feininger’s abstract images were esthetically precious despite their illustrational character. But the taint of being a people’s art -- an art that had broad rather than specialist appeal -- hung like a cloud over Feininger’s abstractions, which is why they have never been fully respected by the “purists.” Greenberg ignores them, and Mark Rosenthal didn’t bother to show them in his Guggenheim exhibition of "Abstraction in the 20th Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline," presumably because they weren’t risky, free, and formally disciplined enough -- that is, they weren’t totally, ruthlessly abstract.

They were always second best; however formally refined, their subject matter stood out like a sore thumb, as it were, poking one in the eye with its offensive self-evidence, and with that its commonplaceness. Its ordinariness was not masked sufficiently by extraordinary art, however extraordinary Feininger’s art was -- which was apparently not extraordinary enough, because its subject matter remained too obvious: thus the vicious circle in which his art was caught. However “modernized” into Cubo-Futurist obscurity, the Clouds above the Sea I, 1923, the sailboats in X 54, 1929, and the Church at Gelmeroda XII, 1936, remain all too recognizable, and, worst of all, accurately described. The works were “pictorial,” and as such seriously flawed from the prevailing abstract perspective. They were scenic pictures, however abstractly scripted. Purity for Feininger was an instrument of precision, not an end in itself, which perhaps explains the oddly engineered, not to say Bauhaus look of his abstract images. (He was associated with the design school until it closed, and designed the optimistic Cathedral, 1919, that appeared on the brochure advertising it. The dramatic image, seamlessly integrating elements of Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism and Constructivism in a new artistic structure -- a consummate avant-garde architecture, yet, ironically, one which used traditional sacred architecture as a template, even Platonic ideal -- symbolized “the new structure of the future,” and with it the reconciliation of the warring avant-garde factions, their working in the name of a common artistic and social cause, that Gropius celebrated in the brochure’s manifesto.)

Feininger’s paintings may not have seemed up to abstract par when they were made -- he never had the pride of pioneering place that Kandinsky and Gropius had (in a 1926 group photograph of the Bauhaus Masters, Gropius and Kandinsky stand in the center, their right arms raised in a quasi-Napoleonic pose, while Feininger and the other masters stand in more relaxed, passive poses, their arms lowered, as though submitting to the authority of the leaders) -- but they have gained a new lease on importance now that purity has become passé, not to say peculiarly ridiculous. Hygienically sacrificing familiar content to unfamiliar form -- paring content away until there is only consciousness of form -- backfired into staleness and sterility. It led to short-lived esthetic success -- the so-called “new lyricism” that Braque spoke of -- but it became a failure of creative imagination, however initially creative.

Feininger realized this, perhaps more than any other abstractionist of his time. He never lost his imagination, that is, his imaginative response to external, consciously perceived reality -- unlike Kandinsky, who argued that abstraction existed to evoke internal reality, to make us conscious of unconscious content (suggesting that he was not equal to external reality, as his so-called “Impressions” of it confirm, and, as his “Improvisations” suggest, he had no sense of the logic of the unconscious, but rather regarded it as a sort of Pandora’s box of illogical feelings, exciting and surprising but finally incoherent and incomprehensible, and as such absurdly autonomous ends in themselves).

It was untimely of Feininger to remind us that the age-old task of art is to imaginatively enlighten us about our experience by giving its content formal presence, making it uncannily significant, confirming that content is inherently mysterious -- so-called pure form borrows its “mystery” from the content from which it is derived (form is transformative; when it becomes pure, an end in itself, it has lost perceptual purpose, diminishing its esthetic appeal) -- but it is what makes his abstract illustrations timely today.   

For Feininger, abstract art was a way of transfiguring and redeeming experience, the way Bach’s fugues and chorales -- “Bach’s mighty tones,” which Feininger played on the organ -- do. His abstractions are also “world-enraptured transfiguration[s],” as he suggests.(2) As Bryan Gilliam writes, Feininger “adopted his father’s metaphysical notions of music as a meta-art, a healing space where an imperfect human soul, ‘failed by visual expression, coils its way in sound to peace and calm’.”(3) Crucially, it was nineteenth-century German romantic music: “a shudder ran through me,” he wrote, when he heard, in an upstairs room, his parents playing “Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert” together.(4) It was as though he was witness to the exciting sounds of the primal scene, even as he acknowledged his dependence on traditional music for inspiration. “I am not the most modern [artist]; rather a person who must break with his time in order to live. Thus I may live behind the times.”(5)  

But he was clearly ahead of his time -- a “postmodernist,” if postmodernism involves the realization that tradition is all that is left of art, or, rather, that all art has become traditional -- that Old Master art and modern art are equally traditional -- that is, historical, part of the same Museum of the Imagination, as Malraux called it. The future of art depends on their imaginative synthesis -- the kind of synthesis Feininger offers us: a convincing synthesis of Old Master art, which is always illustrational and communicative, always speaks to human experience, which is why it has popular appeal, whatever its stylistic credentials; and modern abstract art, which, perhaps paradoxically, is also illustrational, for it illustrates art, suggesting that it is an edifying idea and experience in itself, and as such radically unique and significant, which is why it appeals to the esthetic elite, that is, the happy few who can appreciate “the art in art,” who borrow their sense of significance from art, without worrying whether it communicates anything humanly significant, even if they sometimes try hard to suggest that it does. Feininger’s paintings represent something, not just themselves, as abstract paintings tend to do. Feininger’s paintings have their important place in musical abstraction, but they have a more important place in the dialectic of content and form that has made art important since in antiquity. And, perhaps to overstate the matter, it is the only reason it is important.   

While he was working for the Chicago Tribune, Feininger was also working for Le Témoin, an avant-garde magazine based in Paris (he lived there for almost seven months in 1892-93). Juan Gris and Felix Vallotton also contributed illustrations to the magazine, but what made Feininger’s works distinctive was, in Carlin’s words, their “notably exaggerated caricature and simplified flat designs.”(6) This carried over into his early figurative paintings, and even the later ones. From The Messenger of 1912 to The Red Fiddler of 1934 (probably a self-caricature), his figures are ridiculous -- bizarrely comic, with a sinister, cunning ugliness, as though they were up to some devilish mischief, and as inwardly grotesque as the devil outwardly is. The devil is traditionally ugly, and a comic figure -- a trickster, as Jung said -- suggesting the devilish intention of Feininger’s satiric cartoons.

Picasso, who was born ten years later than Feininger (1881), also began as a “caustic humorist” -- somewhat more caustic and malevolent than Feininger, who is playfully curious about human beings however much he regards them as comically absurd (certainly silly) -- but, unlike Feininger, Picasso never left the “insolent caricature” behind, as his Cubist and Surrealist caricatures of human beings indicate.(7) He rarely lost his sense of the ridiculous and grotesque, or his nastiness. He caricatured Velazquez and Rembrandt, suggesting that he envied them; envy is malevolent -- a form of hatred, as Melanie Klein reminds us, or, as Freud said, an expression of the wish to destroy the other. Picasso’s pseudo-classical studio scenes of a god-like old master and naked young female model, ready to lose her virginity to his art, seem like images from an ongoing comic strip -- and he did a comic strip viciously satirizing Franco (who deserved it, unlike Velazquez and Rembrandt) -- and they are a mocking reprise of the beauty and beast relationship, and of classical beauty. As he said, “the beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, nymphs, Narcissuses are so many lies” (1935). He preferred ugliness -- the beauty of some of his figures is never more than skin-deep -- and the human comedy, satirizing it, however tragic it sometimes was.

Picasso said that it took him a lifetime to learn to paint like a child; a child sees reality in a distorted way. He remained a malevolent child at heart -- the kind who tears wings off butterflies, as many of his pictures of women suggest. They’re often battered beyond recognition, which suggests that he was a sadistic bully. It is also the reason he is a bad painter. Children can’t paint very well. Their art has the freshness of a false innocence, not the dignity of seasoned experience. Picasso’s art in general is over-rated; he appeals to our unconscious aggression, not to our mature perception. He was an arrogant child; Bion argues that arrogance is an expression of the death instinct. Picasso was an innovator, but innovation is not everything in art. The question is what motivates it, what attitude it expresses. The artist’s mentality finally counts for more than his method, however unusual (until it is assimilated as the latest novelty).

Picasso never outgrew the caricature, suggesting that his art is a case study in arrested emotional development. Feininger did: his art is a case study in maturing spirituality. The idea of making a modern spiritual art -- an art that conveyed spirituality through abstract form rather than through outworn traditional imagistic form -- originated with Kandinsky. Feininger carried this idea to its logical conclusion, as it were, making art that was the ripe fruit of the initial spiritual decision “to awaken [from] the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude,” as Kandinsky said.(8) It was the first awakening. The second awakening was to the pure spirit: Feininger “saw” it, as though in a revelation -- “saw the light,” as his late paintings show. For Kandinsky, “only a weak light glimmers, like a tiny point in an enormous circle of black,” indicating that “the awakening soul is still deeply under the influence of this nightmare.”(9) Light gets stronger and stronger in Feininger’s pictures, which finally seem to be consumed by light. They become pictures of light -- revelations of light. Feininger grasps its every nuance, tone, move. It is always subtle and intense, dynamic even when it seems static -- stopped in its changing tracks. His Cubist planes are compact gates of light, sometimes blinding and direct, sometimes subdued and indirect, but always open in the darkness—an opening that stops the eye even as it leads it beyond the visible.

Feininger’s light waxes and wanes, but always dominates the scene, informing the objects, human or natural or manufactured, that appear in it, suggesting their inherent spirituality. Light becomes its only significant content, reducing the human figure to a lonely repoussoir device, an inconsequential comic measure of the infinite musical space, the choral fugue of light that Cubist space has become in Feininger’s paintings. It is the holy ghost itself given abstract form. The figure probably symbolizes Feininger’s sense of solitude and smallness in the presence of the sacred. But it is an indispensable part of the picture, as the boats, seascapes, and townscapes are: imbued with light, all become revelations. Feininger is a traditionalist in that he holds on to objects, a modernist to the extent he gives them abstract form, imaginatively suggesting they’re more extraordinary than they ordinarily seem to be, but never to the extent of making them so abstract that they are unrecognizable as ordinary.  

I am arguing that Feininger’s abstractions are more consummately spiritual than Kandinsky’s, for they show that spirituality is objective as well as subjective. Kandinsky only saw its subjectivity, which is why he became “non-objective,” but Feininger realized that a true spiritual vision makes the spirit in opaque objects luminously transparent. Feininger’s planes become more and more transparent, and with that more and more mysterious. They emanate and reflect and contain light all at once, becoming numinously intimate. Both Kandinsky’s and Feininger’s paintings fall into the category of the “abstract sublime,” but only Feininger’s have the numinosity -- what Rudolf Otto calls “the element of ‘the mysterious’ (mysterium)” and “the awe-ful (tremendum)”(10) -- of authentic spiritual experience. Kandinsky’s light lacks the revelatory quality of Feininger’s light, which suggests that “seeing the light” is an unexpected miracle, where “miracle is the dearest child of Faith,” as Otto says. It seems that Kandinsky didn’t have as much faith -- was not as spiritual -- as Feininger (after all, light for Kandinsky was only a small point in the darkness, while Feininger’s light grew so large it almost dispelled the darkness), whatever faith Kandinsky had in art, more particularly, in abstract art’s ability to convey spiritual aspiration, and spiritually awaken the viewer, and thus not be just another new art -- a modernization of art, which increasingly looks as though it didn’t make for better art.  

Feininger tracks the changing light, from Gelmeroda II, 1913, where it is intensely yellow, to Gelmeroda IV, 1915, where it is grayish white, and beyond, to Gabendorf II, 1924, and Broken Glass, 1927 -- in effect shards of light (and an eccentric abstraction, and thus ahead of its times) -- onto the amazing luminosity of Mouth of the Rega III, 1929-30, Sunset at Deep, 1930, Dunes and Breakwaters, 1939, and finally, the light in Courtyard III, 1949 and The Spell, 1951, which takes over the picture plane. However different the places, light-in-the-darkness is the theme of the photographs Untitled (The Bölbergasse from the West), ca. 1930, and Untitled (A Misty Night in the Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau), 1929, among others. The light in these works has an affinity with the supernatural light in Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul and The Calling of St. Matthew -- the light itself is the revelation. There is no other modern artist who is as sensitive to light as Feininger -- indeed, who can pull all its stops as though it was an organ.  

"Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World," June 30-Oct. 16, 2011, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art.

(1) John Carlin, “Graphic Poetry: Lyonel Feininger’s Brief and Curious Comic-Strip Career,” Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011; exhibition catalogue), 201

(2) Bryan Gilliam, “In the Shadow of Bach: Lyonel Feininger as Musician,” Ibid., 211

(3) Ibid., 210-11

(4) Barbara Haskell, “Redeeming the Sacred: The Romantic Modernism of Lyonel Feininger,” Ibid., 2. Can one think of Cubism and Expressionism as a sort of shuddering—perhaps the avant-garde moment in art can be conceived as a sort of visionary shuddering, a shuddering that shatters perception when it is carried to an extreme, destroying its focus and fragmenting its object) -- in Adorno’s sense: “Shudder is a kind of premonition of subjectivity. . . without shudder consciousness is trapped in reification. The subject is lifeless except when it is able to shudder in response to the total spell” -- the hypnotic spell art casts on us when it is perceptually effective. T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 455.

(5) Gilliam, 211

(6) Carlin, 200

(7) ”Chapter One, 1881-1899,” in The Ultimate Picasso (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 21

(8) Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art” [1912], Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 128

(9) Ibid.

(10) Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 63