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From January 21 to May 13, 2012, the Montreal Museum of Fine
Arts will present the first posthumous retrospective in North America on Lyonel Feininger (1871-
1956). Lyonel Feininger: from Manhattan to the Bauhaus offers the first comprehensive
panorama of the oeuvre of this American artist, who has been strangely forgotten since he
spent most of his life in Germany. A celebrated cartoonist, a leading figure of Expressionism
alongside Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, a professor at the avant-garde Bauhaus School, from
its founding in Weimar until it was closed in Dessau by the Nazis, he was one of the most
famous modern artists in Germany. Condemned as a “degenerate” artist by the Third Reich, he
returned, after a fifty-year absence, to New York, where an exhibition at MoMA in 1944 proved
to be his breakthrough. Our exhibition highlights the surprisingly modern multidisciplinary
dimension of this versatile creator, who was an illustrator, painter, draughtsman, engraver,
photographer, musician and composer. The 350 or so works exhibited include paintings,
watercolours, engravings, illustrations and carved toys. For the first time photographs taken by
the artist are on display together with a group of photographs by his son Andreas, a renowned
photographer of the American modernist school. Seventy prints from a collection of 284
photographs recently gifted to the Museum will be exhibited. This retrospective was organized
by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, in partnership with the Montreal
Museum of Fine Arts.
Major loans have come from a number of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Gugghenheim Museum, New York, the Harvard Art Museums, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and by Lyonel Feininger’s family in the United States and Canada, as well as from many other museums and private collectors in Germany, Austria and the United States and galleries such as Moeller Fine Art, New York - Berlin.
ANDREAS FEININGER, MODERNIST PHOTOGRAPHER: the measure of perfection
As a complement to the Lyonel Feininger retrospective, the Museum is presenting seventy photographs by his son, Andreas Feininger (1906-1999), of the 287 works recently received from the artist’s family through the Wysse E. Feininger Bequest. The photographs by this renowned figure of modernist photography will be seen from a new perspective, informed by the influences of his formative years spent at the Bauhaus, where he lived in his father’s “Master” house in Dessau. The juxtaposition of their art will allow visitors to discover certain affinities in their respective creative visions. The Museum wishes to thank Tomas Feininger and his family for helping to make this bequest possible.
Andreas Feininger reflected on the relationship between his photographs and the art of his father: “There are certain similarities in my work and that of my father. There is a definite likeness in the way we approach the work of creating images and how we treat structure and composition. All his pictures are highly organized: the beautiful clear proportions are planned from the start. I try to achieve the same thing in photography.” Both artists drew inspiration from the world around them. In a century that witnessed unprecedented international conflict and violence, they were drawn to sanctuaries of peace they found in nature, in its sublime vast expanses or, for Andreas, its microscopic wonders. When Andreas focussed his lens on natural phenomena, it was its geometry and monumentality that he brought out, characteristics also intrinsic to much of his father’s art. Nevertheless, in their clarity of line, Andreas’s photographs are closer to New Objectivity than to his father’s interest in the fragmentation and later dissolution of form.
Trained initially as a cabinetmaker at the Bauhaus, then as an architect, Andreas Feininger’s professional career as a photographer began somewhat by chance, as an architectural photographer in Sweden. However, in 1939, when the government forbade foreigners from taking photographs and driving cars because of a fear of spies, Andreas left with his wife, Wysse, and son, Tomas, and moved to New York, where he began a career as a photojournalist and soon established a reputation as one of its pioneers. As a staff photographer for Life magazine from 1943 to 1962, he shot 346 stories, many of which included compelling double-page spreads. He also wrote more than fifty books on photography, which featured reproductions of his work and essays on technical and theoretical approaches to the medium. Some of these works have been translated into fourteen languages.
Edited by Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art of New York, the
fully illustrated 277-page catalogue accompanying the exhibition sheds new light on the artist’s
life and work, based on his voluminous private letters and on new monographs and critical
studies published in Germany. Published in English by Yale University Press, it comprises essays
and a detailed chronology. The authors are John Carlin, free-lance writer and curator, president
and CEO of Funny Garbage, Bryan Gilliam, Frances Hill Fox Professor in Humanities, Duke
University, Durham, North Carolina, Ulrich Luckhardt, curator, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany
and Sasha Nicholas, senior curatorial assistant, Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will oversee the publication of the catalogue in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Somogy Éditions d’art, Paris. It will be the first complete monograph in French on the oeuvre of Lyonel Feininger.
On sale at the Museum Boutique and Bookstore
TALKING ABOUT LYONEL FEININGER: TWO INTERVIEWS
BARBARA HASKELL, CHIEF CURATOR OF THE EXHIBITION, NEW YORK
Did Lyonel Feininger enjoy the same reputation in North America, where he was born, as in Germany, where he lived most of his life?
One of the giants of American twentieth-century art, Lyonel Feininger is renowned as a master of modernism. He was widely acclaimed in German avant-garde circles in the first decades of the century and was the first artist appointed to the Bauhaus. Today, his whimsical and deeply spiritual work is as widely celebrated in Germany as it was during his lifetime: one of his “Gelmeroda” paintings appears on a German stamp. Yet his American roots are ever present in his art, which is grounded in a pantheistic view of the world. He believed that there is beauty and goodness in the world and that it is the artist’s task to find it. Unfortunately, North American audiences have had little opportunity to see his work. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue offer art lovers on this side of the Atlantic a wonderful opportunity to discover this great artist!
What do you hope visitors will discover in Lyonel Feininger’s art?
An artist of extraordinary talent whose work runs the gamut from comic strips and narrative, figurative paintings to whimsical toys, fugues, woodcuts, photographs and transcendental paintings of architecture and the sea. Feininger’s work makes us smile, while also connecting us to the rhythms and underlying order of the cosmos.
Were there any discoveries you made that have changed your perception of Feininger’s artistic output?
Before beginning this exhibition, I had little knowledge of Feininger’s comic strips or the narrative, whimsical figurative paintings he produced in the period before 1920. This was a revelation that greatly enhanced my appreciation of his work. I had always admired his portrayal of the transcendental sublime. The figurative work is so fresh and contemporary in its presentation of the world, as if it’s being seen from a child’s perspective. It gives viewers entry into what Feininger called “golden childhood.” An artist whose work encompasses both moods is unique.
TOMAS FEININGER, THE ARTIST’S GRANDSON, QUEBEC CITY
Your great-grandparents were musicians, and your grandfather decided at the
age of sixteen to abandon his music studies in favour of fine art. Nevertheless, music remained an important part of his life. Was this something you observed?
My grandfather often said that each day should begin with Bach. When I was a small child, he would play Bach sonatas on his violin before breakfast. When he was in his seventies, he found it increasingly difficult to control his fingering, so he gave up the instrument. Sadly, he died before the large-scale introduction of the LP record. Endless flipping of 78-rpm records made the enjoyment of long pieces tiresome. His deafness in his left ear may also have made attending concerts an unpleasant experience for someone with his finely tuned senses. His direct association with music faded in the final years of his life.
What was the impact of the Bauhaus period?
My grandfather never spoke to me of his Bauhaus years. Clearly, he was devastated by Hitler and the terrible destruction of World War II. My grandmother expressed her feelings by referring to the garbage can in her kitchen as the “Goebbels!” For years, I thought that this was the correct German word. And no, she never explained the etymology to me.
What emerged in his interactions with you? What did he want to instill in his grandchildren?
I was the only grandchild born in his lifetime. My grandfather was a private person, but he was always very pleasant and kind to me. He patiently taught me to make woodcut prints, a technique that I continue to use today to make my cards at Christmas. Together, we sailed his model boats on a pond in a city park, and, in 1947, he introduced me to “Book Row” in Lower Manhattan, thus instilling in me a lifelong love of books. I continued prowling the “Row” and bought many books.