The Harvard Art Museums host the largest Lyonel Feininger collection in the world. The directors Lynette Roth and Laura Muir chat about Feininger’s photographs and hint at topics about his multi-faceted work that are still not represented in the research up to today.

Lyonel Feininger was born and raised in New York in the 1870s. At the age of 16 he moved to Germany initially to become a musician, but he quickly decided to study at the Allgemeinen Gewerbeschule und Schule für Bauhandwerker (General trade school of construction crafts) in Hamburg instead. This soon turned into enrollments at art schools in Berlin and Paris, until in 1896/97 he started his career as a commercial cartoonist for German and American newspapers. At the same time, he worked on drawings and paintings on the side that helped him score his very first solo exhibition at the Berliner Galerie Der Sturm in 1917. When Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, Feininger was his very first appointed Bauhaus Master who also created the front page of the official Bauhaus Manifesto: an expressionist woodcut print of a cathedral.  He also led the printmaking workshop up until 1933 when the school was forced to close under pressure of the Nazi regime. Feininger and his family were ultimately forced to leave Germany for good in 1937 after his work was declared ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazi Party. They moved back to New York and with the help of one of the Bauhaus students, Hermann Klumpp, they were able to bring a lot of Feininger’s work to the US with them. And his sons were able to get most of the pieces left in Germany back in the 1970s. Until today, the Harvard Art Museums hold the largest collection of art works by Lyonel Feininger in the world.

Cover page Bauhaus Manifesto, photo: Natalie Wichmann

So, Feininger himself was involved with the collection at Harvard?

Lynette Roth: “After he returned to the United States, yes.”

Laura Muir: “It was partly through Gropius because the Feiningers spent time at Gropius' house in Lincoln and their son Lux actually worked for Harvard during the mid to late 50s and early 60s as an instructor of paintings and drawing. So, Lux also had a close connection to Charles Kuhn and the museum.”  

I see, makes sense. Let’s switch gears a bit: Can you each tell me a fun-fact about Feininger that surprised you? Maybe something not everybody knows that you found during your research?

Lynette Roth: “Well, for me it was - until I met Laura - that he took photographs. I came to the museum in 2011 and that was basically when the Lyonel Feininger Photography 1928-1939 exhibition was happening. It was my first couple weeks on the job, and we were in Berlin opening the show and people were coming up to me asking: “So, tell me about finding those photographs.” And I was like “I can't. Where is Laura?” This was her project. This was her research. And I would say it's still not well-known, it’s still surprising to anyone who's not here in Cambridge or didn't see the exhibition back then.”

Laura Muir: “I think I'm always amazed of how versatile he was. I love the early work, the cartoons. We have some of the “Wee Willy Winkie’s World” there (points to the right corner of the space). But then he's able to shift into paintings and becomes a serious painter. And the next moment, he's all about woodblock printing. Then all of a sudden, he gets involved with photography, which remains an interest for the rest of his life. Oh and he does this work with slide projections: He's taking photographs on slide film and at a certain point starts projecting those in his apartment in New York City. That's an area that I think could still be explored, we have 4000 slides in our collections…”

Lyonel Feininger, Colored trucks, 1940s-1950s, slide film, Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of T. Lux Feininger, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023, Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College, BRLF.1008.202
Photo: Natalie Wichmann

Lynette Roth: “They are featured in the SCHIRN exhibition, too! I was watching people the night of the opening - it was very crowded - but people would just stop and stare at these slide projections. Also, his late work… Actually, I want to change my answer from photography to the work he did after returning to the United States. My knowledge of Feininger came from the time I spent in Germany and the German collections of Feininger’s work that are often focused on the 1920s, mostly on the Bauhaus years. It wasn't until I came here (to the museum) that I saw the later paintings. Talking of versatility, the way he is working the surface is completely different. He's kind of scraping into it. They have a texture, a sort of tactile quality. And yet they still have the characteristics of the luminosity of the earlier works. You sort of feel that it’s Feininger, but the treatment of the canvas is so, so different, and I felt like, wow! It was a huge shift for them to have to return to the United States, so it took him a while to get back into creating, but when he does there is something completely different about his work. These skyscrapers, the New York skyscraper paintings are just fantastic. It is great that these are also included in the show in Frankfurt because I don’t think that is something a lot of people are familiar with either.”

Laura Muir: “They’re really closely connected with this super traumatic shift in his biography, having to come to the United States in his 60s, having to move his whole life. Even though he's returning to his hometown, things are kind of familiar, but it’s been so many years since he was in New York that everything has changed. To me, photography was this medium that helped him get back into being able to make art. The photography, the drawings, and the paintings from that time are all kind of intertwined in interesting ways.”

I read a quote about him leaving a New York with carriages and horses and he came back to a New York full of cars and trains. It must have been a total shock, that place he remembered from his teenage years just didn’t exist anymore…”

Laura Muir: “Yes! I love that throughout his life he would make drawings from the windows of his studios and then later take lots of photographs looking out on the world around him. Like here (points to a color photograph) he's looking down on the intersection with the cars and the buses, this is after they took down the elevated train tracks. Seeing this familiar place that's unfamiliar now, I think it was productive for him, but also disorienting.”

I saw one of the car photographs yesterday in your digital archive and at first glance I thought those were actual toy cars…

Lynette Roth: “Yes, which is funny when thinking about his toys…”

Laura Muir: “Oh yes, the toys. That's like a whole other thing.”

I saw these yesterday for the first time and I was like, wait, what, he made toys?

Lynette Roth: “Yes, and they are beautifully installed in Frankfurt in their own inset case!”

I love that title for them: “City on the Edge of the World”. Whimsy and a bit sad. He also took photographs of them, right?

Laura Muir: “He did! His whole approach to the toys, childhood, and fantasy is something that is present from his early works like the comic strips up through something like this (Laura and eventually we all get up and walk over to a white and blue watercolor with ink drawings of female figures on it called “Feux Follets”) which was made in the 1940s and also has that whimsical figurative aspect that is related to the work he created from taking photographs of mannequins in shop windows.“

Lyonel Feininger: Retrospective, exhibition view, © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2023, Photo: Norbert Miguletz
Lyonel Feininger: Retrospective, exhibition view, © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2023, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Lynette keeps strolling along the line of works propped up around the room.

Lynette Roth: “As Laura was saying he's just incredibly skilled in whatever medium he's tackling. Imagine you’re teaching a class on how a single artist moves from this (points to the cartoon strips) to this (points to a woodcut) to this (points to one of the “Ghosties”, a series of watercolors from the 1950s.) Although we can't show works on paper on permanent view because of the light sensitivity, his paintings are on permanent view throughout different galleries in the museum. Two of the paintings that are now in Frankfurt, “The Bathers” and “Avenue of Trees” are normally in our Cubism section to show where he's taking impulses from, but also how very different his work is from that. And then two of our most well-known (Feininger) paintings are in the gallery dedicated to the Bauhaus. He's one of those figures, because of the strength of the collection, that you can track throughout all of our galleries. Actually, since we have framed his later works for the exhibition in Frankfurt, we can now pull Feininger even further into the post-war galleries!“

Laura Muir: “The fun of this archive is you can really connect the dots. “Bird Cloud” sequence over here is a wonderful example. It's such a great teaching tool to help think about the artist’s process. This is the original nature note: he sees this on August 6th, he develops it over the 8th and 9th of August and then two years later he paints “Bird Cloud” painting that is in[JS1] [NW2]  our galleries downstairs. He changes it considerably because “Bird Cloud” has a severe horizon, it doesn't have this recession into space like in the nature note. But even though he really changed it, the bird cloud form is still recognizable.”  

It’s a real evolution from one medium to the next. Also giving it time to marinate and stir, two years is a long time to come back to a sketch...

Laura Muir: “Which he did all the time. He made these over 5000 sketches that he kept and would go back to years later. Like look at this sketch here, this will later on become the blueprint for “The Bathers” that are on view at SCHIRN now. You can see the bathing suits are similar, like the orange one here on the right or the striped one in the left, the composition is similar too with the bathers in the forefront and the boats in the back, but the style has drastically changed…”  

Lynette Roth: “Alright, should we go downstairs and have a look at the paintings we still have on view in our galleries?”

I’ll grab my notebook and phone and we’re off in search of the last two paintings still residing at Harvard Art Museums while most of the others went to Frankfurt for the retrospective. We cross through the impressive main courtyard populated by visitors gazing into the galleries and all the way up to the glass ceiling, each floor looking slightly different than the next. From old world columns to the pigment library, the eye can get caught on a myriad of things. When we finally reach the Bauhaus inspired section of the museum, Lynette directly beelines to “Bird Cloud”, a focal point of the room demanding the viewer’s attention. It is not the largest piece in the space, but the lonely figure on the lower left corner pulls at me the second it comes into view. After seeing the nature sketch as well as the follow up watercolor paintings, it is mesmerizing to see the final painting with its simplified, splintered forms, Feininger himself called prism-ism, in person. It’s like Lynette said, he changed it, but the bird cloud formation is still very much recognizable.

Lyonel Feininger, Bird Cloud, photo: Natalie Wichmann


October 27, 2023 – February 18, 2024

More Information on the Exhibition