Beyond Buildings


Lyonel Feininger and the Birth of the Modern World

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Courtesy: Whitney Museum of American Art


For those of us who still have this vision of Modernism as being nothing but straight lines, glass, and white planes, the Lyonel Feininger exhibition on display at the Whitney Museum in New York is a revelation. A pillar of the Bauhaus, Feininger (1871–1956) helped shape several generations of artists, while his images of translucent planes shimmering in diffused light have become canonical representations of the vision, both X-Ray and explosive, that Modernists had of our world. In this exhibition, those fragments of geometry turn out to be the shards left over after Feininger had revealed the world to be one of distortion, rather than abstraction.


Carnival in Arcueil, 1911.; Figures and houses, c. 1949.Courtesy: Whitney Museum of American Art


The first gasp that this exhibition elicited from me happened in the room devoted to the cartoons Feininger created for the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Called Kin-der-kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World, they were in the same league as the Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy Kat, and Little Nemo. Human figures became little sticks, the world bulged out into landscapes that zoomed forward and fall back, and the city towered impossibly tall over all of it with just the hint of grids and spires. Though Feininger’s gig in Chicago was short-lived and he quickly moved back to Germany, he did continue building his cartoon world in toys he carved, first for his children and later for his own delight.


The cartoons had a “high art” side: portraits of small towns and villages in Germany and France where figures strode through landscapes whose houses bunched together into a fractured geography shot through with fissures and topped with spreading and reaching roofs. Painted right before and during World War I, these paintings both evoked a world that was disappearing and exhibited the energies that were transforming reality through the way things were lit with electricity, seen from speeding trains or cars, or photographed and distorted in a lens.


When Feininger moved to Dessau and started teaching at the Bauhaus in the 1920s (and translating its buildings into photographs), he started constructing the world for which I at least knew him best. It is one where reality is reaching towards the same kind of dissolution that the artists of De Stijl or architects such as Mies van der Rohe dreamed of, but with a shimmering quality that evoked the actual birth or dawning of that new world, rather than its appearance as a full-blown fact.


With the arrival of the Nazis in 1936, Feininger had to flee back to his native United States, where he had not lived for almost 50 years. There he spent the last decades of his life trying to capture the excitement of New York and its crazy quilt of skyscrapers and tangle of crowds. You would think that this landscape was just waiting for his slices of light to open it up and reveal it, but Feininger never caught the scale and intensity of this urban drama.


When you look at the world through Feininger’s eyes, you see not a collection of human-made and natural forms that layer over and on top of each other, but the manner in which everything that makes our modern reality fuses into an order that is beyond the scope and scale of our bodies. He throws us into the maelstrom that is modernity, and then shows us the way through the eddies and rocks towards some form of salvation—which he leaves for us to construct, whether in fact or in faith.


"Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World" is on view at the Whitney through Oct. 12, 2011. The exhibition travels to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Jan. 20–May 13, 2012.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.