The German-American artist Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) is a classic protagonist of modern art. The SCHIRN is dedicating an extensive retrospective to the important painter and graphic artist — the first in Germany in twenty-five years—thus providing an in-depth and surprising overall picture of his work.

After coming to Germany from New York in 1887 to study in Leipzig, Lyonel Feininger ultimately decided to pursue the visual arts at the academy in Berlin. He had his first success here as a leading caricaturist and illustrator, with drawings that make it possible to recognize his special sense of humor. Beginning in 1896, he produced drawings for various satire magazines and newspapers like Ulk or Lustige Blätter and developed the comic series "The Kin-der-Kids" and "Wee Willie Winkie’s World" (both 1906) for The Chicago
Sunday Tribune. His early paintings were also figurative. The so-called carnival or “masquerade” pictures, with their characteristic color palette of muted rosés, toxic yellow, midnight blue, and turquoise green, were created during his stay in Paris and in the following years between 1907 and 1911. The figures depicted in dramatic, dreamlike scenes are often isolated-seeming “types”—workers, intellectuals, children, women, and men with elongated limbs and dressed in extravagant fashion that seems to have fallen out of time.

Lyonel Feininger, Carnival, 1908 © bpk / Nationalgalerie, SMB / Jörg P. Anders / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

Feininger developed his famed series of crystalline architectures—still today his best-known group of works—during the First World War and into the 1920s. As a result of the prismatic superimposition of surfaces, which call to mind the migration of light over the course of the day, the pictures were given an element of time, while the transparency embodies mental clarity and
spirituality. Influential in this development was Feininger’s examination of Cubism, and in particular Robert Delaunay’s light-flooded and dynamic works as well as those of the Italian Futurists, as reflected in his major painting "The Cyclists". In his prismatically broken-open and monumental architectures, Feininger attached particular importance to an Expressionistic, inwardly shaped vision. Rather than dissecting and providing multiple views of an object, he strove for concentration to an absolute extreme. Feininger, who was also a musician and composed pieces himself, compared his painting with the “synthesis of a fugue,” in which harmony and dissonance, as well as formal rigor and rhythm, find their place.

Lyonel Feininger, The Cyclists, 1912 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

Still today, Feininger is regarded as one of the most important woodcut masters of the twentieth century. The majority of his roughly 320 woodcuts were created in a period of just three years, between 1918 and 1920, including the iconic "Cathedral" (1919), which is printed on the title page of the Manifest und Programm des staatlichen Bauhauses in Weimar (Manifesto and Program of the State Bauhaus in Weimar, 1919). That same year, Walter Gropius brought Feininger to the Bauhaus as one of the first Masters, and he became the director of the printmaking workshop there in 1921. The SCHIRN is also showing drawings, etchings, and lithographs from Feininger’s extensive graphic oeuvre.

The exhibition brings together a spectacular series of five paintings from various phases of Feininger’s large series by the name of "Gelmeroda" (1913–55), on which he worked again and again over roughly forty years, in addition to one drawing, several woodcuts, and one lithograph. This makes it possible to trace in particular Feininger’s enthusiasm for historically evolved,
romantic architecture. His development is, however, in no way linear and comprises crystalline-Expressionistic and moving versions such as "Gelmeroda II" (1913) and, at the same time, majestic renderings with the principal motif striving upward in a cool bluish green, as in "Gelmeroda VIII" (1921). Feininger pursued another intensive examination of the city of Halle (Saale), characterized by old city buildings and massive sacred structures.

Lyonel Feininger, Cathedral, 1919, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
Lyonel Feininger, Gelmeroda II, 1913 © bpk / Neue Galerie New York / Art Resource, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023 / Photo by Hulya Kolabas
Lyonel Feininger, Gelmeroda VIII, 1921 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

In the late 1920s, Feininger intensified his examination of photography, even though he had taken a critical view of the medium for a long time, and left behind a collection of altogether roughly 20,000 photo objects, just recently rediscovered. The SCHIRN is showing photographs and slides by the artist, which take up central motifs like (display window) figures, locomotives, and architecture. He photographed the Bauhaus in Dessau at night in mysterious light, unlike any other Bauhaus photo. The medium served Feininger as an additional realm for experimenting with picture effects such as light-dark contrasts, shadows, and play with shapes, as well as blurring, which call to mind rhythmic elements in his paintings


Recurring thematically in Feininger’s oeuvre are his sea works. The steamboats and sailboats on the Hudson River in New York had already fascinated him as a child, and, in Germany, his annual stay at the Baltic Sea offered him inspiration for additional motifs. Besides nearly abstract beach pictures with doll-like figures and surfaces fragmented in a Cubistic manner, like "Bathers (on the Beach I)" (1912), Feininger produced dramatic mystical paintings such as "Leviathan (Steamer Odin I)" (1917). The deserted, transparent sea pictures that he painted starting in the 1920s, and lasting well into his late work in the United States, represent the second renowned group of works in addition to Feininger’s crystalline architectures. As in the church pictures, here he looked to nature for inner experiences with references to romanticism. Mysterious emptiness, solitude, subtle experiences with light, space, and clouds are recurring topics, as in "Calm at Sea III" (1929) or "Dune at Eventide" (1936), which call to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s painting "Mönch am Meer" (The Monk by the Sea) or William Turner’s seascapes.

Lyonel Feininger, Masters' Houses Dessau (1925-1926) © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
Lyonel Feininger, Dunes in the Evening, 1936, Courtesy Moeller Fine Art, New York, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

Continuity and contrary tendencies continue in Feininger’s late oeuvre. In 1937, after nearly fifty years, the artist, along with his Jewish wife, Julia, fled from National Socialist Germany into exile in the United States. His art was publicly defamed in the exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art), and over 400 works were confiscated from public collections. After two years in New York, Feininger resumed painting. With the help of his “nature notes,” he took up earlier motifs in a new style and transferred to his new surroundings central compositions like towering canyons between buildings from "Church of the Minorites II" (1926) or from photographs of Halle into, for example, series of New York pictures like "Manhattan I" (1940). Feininger’s earlier tendency toward working nearly (but not entirely) abstractly intensified in his late oeuvre, particularly in the series of skyscrapers in New York. This also applies to his photography, which is oriented more than before toward the abstract. Feininger occupied himself to a greater extent with color slides and once again took up familiar motifs and compositions from his work. By reexploring his painting "Broken Glass" (1927), he experimented with overlapping pieces of glass and light phenomena, which were continued on another visual level when the slides were projected.

Lyonel Feininger, Bliss Building [New York], 1940s-1950s © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023, Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College, BRLF.1006.133


October 27, 2023 – February 18, 2024

More Information on the Exhibition