Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY

The new Lyonel Feininger exhibition at the Whitney comes as a thunderclap. Known mostly as a loyal Bauhaus cubist, he emerges here as a complex master with a subtle sense of light and line. This first US retrospective in almost half a century traces the astonishing twists, detours and switchbacks of his 50-year career. Feininger composed oils, caricatures, comic strips, grotesqueries and photographs. He carved a charming compendium of wooden toys. He authored awesome watercolours and woodcuts. And, as a twice-exiled old man, he reached a late apotheosis with subtle, otherworldly New York cityscapes.

Though Feininger lived most of his life in Germany, the Whitney Museum of American Art embraces him because he was born and died in New York City. Like Cassatt, Whistler and Sargent before him, he straddled two continents, never quite at home in either. At 16, he left his German-American parents to study violin in Leipzig, but made a double detour en route and wound up changing both vocation and destination. He landed in Berlin and became an artist, remaining torn between callings and countries.

Success in Germany made it hard for him to go home and kept him in a condition of perpetual homesickness. He quickly became one of Germany’s pre-eminent caricaturists, feeding a vibrant market for satire. In 1906 he created two formally daring comic strips that he sent back to the Chicago Tribune: the quasi-abstract, animate landscape of “Wee Willie Winkie’s World” and “Kin-der-Kids”, a cornucopia of frolicsome characters with stove-pipe hats and goggle eyes. He had hoped that the gig would bring him back to the US in style, but his contract was terminated after only nine months, and his American prospects dimmed.

Plan B materialised in the form of his second wife, Julia, a German woman of means who encouraged him to give up commercial art to pursue what he called “serious work”. His first efforts in oil aped the language of his comics, with flat planes of bright colour, abrupt shifts in scale, and a motley cast of characters tottering along crowded, carnivalesque streets. The dislocated artist nurtured a lingering fondness for what he called his “beloved romantic period” of the 1820s and 30s. These early paintings refracted nostalgia through the lurid palette and acid-trip distortions of Die Brücke, the German expressionist group.

Lyonel Feininger's ' Carnival in Arcueil, 1911, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection

Feininger’s feverish Biedermeier dreams came to an abrupt end in 1911, when he saw Delaunay’s “Eiffel Tower” at the Salon des Independents in Paris. Delaunay’s “catastrophic visions” and “cosmic shakings” rattled Feininger’s inhibitions. He learned to paint all over again, filtering his earlier work through the cubist prism. The Whitney has before and after versions of “The Green Bridge”. The first has the uniform patches of bright colour, asymmetrical composition, and cut-off views characteristic of Japanese woodblock prints. The second splinters streets, bridge and people into hundreds of interlocking strata. Feininger analysed the logic beneath the storm of appearances: “Even chaos is full of order,” he declared.

The war years saw him toggling between cubism and expressionism. His friends were all at the front; as a foreigner, he stayed “home” in Berlin, channelling his conflicting loyalties into wobbly paintings and savagely geometric woodcuts. His most famous work, the cover for the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto, depicts a visionary “Kathedral” animated by converging bolts of diagonal energy that ignite explosions of little stars.

That image sums up the Bauhaus’s utopian ambitions for a co-operative of artisans, architects, sculptors and labourers joining hands to erect the cathedrals of the future. Feininger taught painting and drawing, and soon moved on to the graphics workshop, where he supervised all printed materials.

He thrived at the Bauhaus. The lapsed musician began writing fugues for organ, which, in turn, taught him to structure paintings polyphonically. A church, a boat or a bit of atmosphere echoes through the rest of the canvas in reverberant hues. The Baltic Sea crystallises into the sky; Halle’s cathedral throbs like a tuning fork, setting the rest of the city abuzz.

In “The Church of the Minorites II”, from 1926, a solid shaft of brassy light clangs against a pair of tall gothic windows framed by slender buttresses. All around that brilliant centre, shadows dance with ochre highlights, dark shutters with glimmering panes, slicing verticals with syncopated diagonals. Feininger is at his zenith here. Line, light, colour and texture all harmonise in a hushed vision of the sublime.

The Nazis truncated those golden years. They shut down each successive iteration of the Bauhaus and had Feininger’s paintings removed from public collections. Yet like so many in his adopted country, he saw but did not process. He had a Jewish wife, “half-breed” children and the option to return to a country he had been musing about for decades – and still he feared American materialism more than Nazi fanaticism. “I am quite enraptured and totally enthusiastic about Hitler’s speech in front of the Reichstag,” he wrote in May 1933. In the US, he feared, he would lose his accumulated prestige and face spiritual death.

He and his family finally left in 1937 – just a month before his work was included in the Nazis’ notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibition. He arrived destitute and, as he feared, almost entirely unknown. Yet there is no bitterness and only the gentlest sort of melancholy in his American works. His technique loosened in response to anxiety, as it had during the first world war, and he reverted to colour blocks and thick, wavy lines. But as he reacquainted himself with his hometown, Feininger began to render Manhattan’s poetic geometries in gossamer, grids and stippled indigo planes.

Buffeted by the breakers of political and personal turmoil, he never stopped honing his talent. Ten days before his death in 1956, the 85-year-old painter wrote: “I won’t let myself be persuaded that the time has come for slowing down.”

‘Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World’ continues until October 16.

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