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The Whitney Presents Lyonel Feininger's Most Complete Retrospective to Date
Lyonel Feininger, A Group of Houses and Figures, c. 1949. Painted wood, dimensions variable. Art Institute of Chicago; Bequest of Maxine Kunstadter 1978.411© Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago.
NEW YORK, NY.- Lyonel Feininger has long been recognized as a major figure of the Bauhaus, renowned for his romantic, crystalline depictions of architecture and the Baltic Sea. Yet the range and diversity of his achievement are less well known. Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, the artist’s first retrospective in the United States in forty-five years, is the first ever to incorporate the full breadth of his art by integrating his well-known oils with his political caricatures and pioneering Chicago Sunday Tribune comic strips; his figurative German Expressionist compositions; his architectural photographs of Bauhaus and New York subjects; his miniature hand-carved, painted wooden figures and buildings, known as City at the Edge of the World; and his ethereal late paintings of New York City. Curated by Barbara Haskell with the assistance of Sasha Nicholas, the exhibition debuts at the Whitney Museum of American Art from June 30 to October 16, 2011, and subsequently travels to The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, January 16 –May 13, 2012.

Born and raised in New York City, Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) moved at the age of sixteen to Germany to study music. Instead, he became a caricaturist and eventually a leading member of the German Expressionist groups Die Brücke and Die Blaue Reiter and, later, the Bauhaus. In the late 1930s, when the Nazi campaign against modern art necessitated his return to New York after an absence of fifty years, his marriage of abstraction and recognizable imagery made him a beloved artist in the United States.

Having spent fifty years of his life in Germany, Feininger is most often considered a German artist. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue illuminate his dual national loyalties and their reverberations in his art. As Haskell notes in her catalogue essay: “(Feininger’s) complex and contradictory allegiances—to American ingenuity and lack of pretension on the one hand, and to German respect for tradition and learning on the other—rendered him an outsider in both countries. Always yearning for one world while living in the other, he never stopped longing for the ‘lost happiness’ of his childhood.”

Before he began to paint in 1907, at the age of thirty-six, Feininger had built a career as one of Germany's most successful caricaturists. When he turned to painting, he fused the whimsical figuration of his comic strips and illustrations with the high-keyed color of German Expressionist painting. Just at the moment that Feininger's oils began to earn him widespread recognition, World War I broke out. He spent the war in Germany as an enemy alien, never having relinquished his American citizenship. In 1919, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, appointed Feininger as the school's first professor and commissioned him to design the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto. Feininger's expressionist woodcut, depicting a tripartite cathedral surrounded by shooting stars, symbolized the school's idealistic unification of fine art, architecture, and crafts. Feininger remained at the Bauhaus until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933, revered as a teacher and head of the school's graphics workshop. The monumental compositions of architectural and seascape subjects that he produced at the Bauhaus gained him national renown, culminating in his receipt in 1931 of Germany's highest honor for an artist: a large-scale retrospective at Berlin's National Gallery.

When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, the situation became unbearable for Feininger and his wife, who was Jewish. They moved to America in 1937, just months before his work was featured in the Nazi's infamous Degenerate Art exhibition. Readjusting to the changed landscape of New York was difficult after such a long absence; not until 1939 did Feininger begin painting again. In America, as in Germany, he employed geometric forms to invest the modern world with a secular spirituality. Art, for him, was a "path to the intangibly Divine,” a way of expressing what he called the “glory there is in Creation." At the same time, Feininger continued in his last years to call upon the playful figurative vocabulary of his early illustrations and comics to evoke the harmony and innocence of childhood. Feininger's 1944 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled for two years to major American cities, established him as a major artist in his native country during his final years.



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