Artist Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) lived in both the United States and Germany, alternated between work as an illustrator and painting, yet always remained true to himself.
Born 1871 in New York Lyonel Feininger spent a large part of his life in Germany, where his artistic career reached a climax in 1919 when he was appointed one of the first of the Bauhaus masters. However, Feininger had actually started out in the applied arts. He published his first caricatures while still a student in Berlin. For years Feininger worked for newspapers and magazines such as “Ulk”, “Lustige Blätter”, “Das Narrenschiff”, “Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung” [sic] and for “Harper's Round Table” in New York.
Despite his professional success Lyonel Feininger did not feel ssatisfied. The caricatures were commissioned pieces, their topic and content determined by the respective editors. Feininger could not realize his artistic ambitions during this period. Then in 1906, the publisher of the newspaper “Chicago Tribune” James Keeley (1867–1934), commissioned Feininger to design a comic strip for the newspaper. For the first time, Feininger was allowed to choose the subject matter himself. At the same time Winsor McCay published his comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” in the “New York Herald”.
A generous fee
Within a few months Feininger developed the comic series “The Kin-der-Kids” and “Wee Willie Winkie’s World”. A total of 28 full-page, coloured episodes of “The Kin-der-Kids” were published, 20 of “Wee Willie Winkie’s World”. All the episodes were signed with the words “Your Uncle Feininger” For the newspaper readers of the time Feininger’s comic strips were too ambitious and were stopped prematurely. But in both comic series you find themes to which he was to return in his later artistic works: romanticized towns, churches and seascapes. In the exhibition “Pioneers of the Comic Strip. A Different Avant-Garde, the SCHIRN is presenting numerous original drawings and newspaper spreads featuring Feininger’s caricatures and comic strips.
The generous fee from Chicago enabled Feininger to move to Paris, where he finally discovered painting. Initially, Feininger’s paintings were still illustrative, their style strongly reminiscent of his comic works. Yet around 1912 Lyonel Feininger encountered Cubism in Paris. In the years that followed he developed his characteristic sense of composition, with its reliance on refracted, prismatic structures. He also began to concentrate on just a few subjects. The grotesque oversized figures gave way to cityscapes and seascapes. In 1919 Walter Gropius appointed Feininger master and head of the graphic printing workshop at Bauhaus Weimar. The Bauhaus manifesto featured Feininger’s lithograph “Cathedral” on the cover.
National Socialism and “degenerate art”
Above all in his time at Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, Feininger repeatedly undertook excursions to surrounding towns and villages. He produced monumental images of the Barfüsserkirche in Erfurt and of Halle cathedral. And he also created many impressive paintings and prints of small village churches like the one in Gelmeroda. Above all in the 1920s Feininger spent the summer months in the coastal resort Deep (today: Mrzeżyno) on the Baltic coast. The coastal landscape, the sky above the sea and sailing boats became frequent motifs in Feininger’s work and placed him alongside Romanticism.
In 1933 the Nazis seized power in Germany. The Bauhaus, which had already had to move from Dessau a year earlier, also closed in Berlin. Initially Lyonel Feininger remained in Germany. However, his paintings were now classified as “degenerate”. In June 1937 Feininger returned to the city where he was born, New York. In the early 1940s he produced cityscapes of Manhattan. Even though the Gothic cathedrals gave way to modern high-rises an amazing continuity is discernible.
In 1944, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) devoted a comprehensive solo exhibition to the artist, who was now 73. In connection with the show Feininger gifted the MoMA his specimen copies of the “Chicago Tribune” comic strips “Kin-der-Kids” and “Wee Willie Winkie’s World”. Lyonel Feininger died 1956 in New York. During his lifetime he never denied the many years he worked as a caricaturist and cartoonist.