Living at the Edge:
The World of Lyonel Feininger
On April 29, 1906, Lyonel Feininger launched his comic strip, The Kin-der-Kids , with a charming caricature of himself as puppeteer and the caption, “FEININGER THE FAMOUS GERMAN ARTIST EXHIBITING THE CHARACTERS HE WILL CREATE.” A tag affixed to his ear by a loop of string identifies him as “your Uncle Feininger.”
Skip ahead nine years and Feininger, now a successful and “serious”1 fine artist using oil on canvas, reveals a decidedly different aspect of himself. No longer the impish uncle introducing his rag-tag crew, he seems to scowl angrily at a visitor’s intrusion or perhaps the adult in the mirror’s reflection.
In a wide-ranging retrospective, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World , the Whitney Museum of American Art  chronicled Feininger’s evolution from cartoonist to painter and printmaker, early adopter of photography for its own qualities and for preparatory studies, and in later years, a proponent of abstraction in the service of the spiritual.
The conflicting tugs on Feininger’s psyche originated in his childhood. Born in 1871 to a German emigre and civil-war-veteran father and a German-American mother, Feininger spent his first sixteen years living in Manhattan’s East Village. Raised in an environment permeated by the sounds of German compositions played by his parents, accomplished musicians, by age nine he was studying the violin with his father and by twelve, performing.
Both his parents believed in the power of music to act as a conduit between the artist and a beneficent almighty, a tenet that found its way into Feininger’s art. He wrote as an adult of his “‘unbounded faith in the goodness of the Almighty’ and in art’s capacity to express it,”2 and he strove to create work in the service of those beliefs.
Frequently left alone by what he would later refer to as his “‘almost hypothetical parents,’”3 who traveled abroad to perform, young Feininger spent many hours with his running buddy and life-long friend, Frank Kortheuer, observing trains in Grand Central Terminal’s rail yards and ships on the island’s two rivers. They sketched what they saw and used their drawings to enrich the stories they told each other about the two fantasy kingdoms they devised and inhabited, and continued to embellish over time.
Like many a child left to his own devices, young Feininger found comfort in imagined worlds like these, where events unfolded and characters acted in ways he could control. That childlike delight in conjuring alternative worlds and their inhabitants, “like something out of a fairy tale,”4 animates his most engaging work–the comic strips and early paintings–and finds literal embodiment in small wooden toys he carved over the years (between about 1920 and 1955) as gifts for his and others’ children.
Well into the exhibition and in their own gallery, in one large central vitrine and four smaller peripheral ones, these handcrafted figures populate streets and houses amid other architectural structures, trains and animals. Here the visitor encounters Feininger at his most charming and whimsical. Not surprisingly, many of the objects make appearances in his paintings, prints and drawing, perhaps indications of an ongoing desire to find a way back to a childhood paradise lost.
And lost it was, precipitously, when at age sixteen Feininger was shipped off to Germany to pursue a career in music. Despite the boy’s superficial obedience to his parents’ wishes, evidence suggests some subterfuge. The facts are fuzzy, but apparently upon arrival, when learning of the absence of his intended music teacher, the teenager gathered up the drawings he had been unable to leave behind and applied to art school. He gained immediate admission and quickly excelled.
The rest of the story unfolded, though not quite chronologically, on the white-box walls of the Whitney. Opening in a large room with the artist’s early paintings–his first forays into the world of fine art–the exhibit announced its focus on Feininger’s oils on canvas, which began about 1906.
The tale of the career that Feininger abandoned at age 35, one in which he achieved prominence as a cartoonist and illustrator, remained tucked away in an easily-missed gallery, on the left, of mostly comics, a few cartoons and several illustrations. For much of his life, Feininger entertained himself and others with caricatures and then, during his first few years in Germany, parlayed his hobby into income-producing commissions from a humor magazine, hoping to save enough money to return home.
Family circumstances intervened and mandated a two-year stint at a Jesuit college in Belgium after which Feininger managed to convince his father to finance his art education. Soon turned off by the staid academics with whom he regularly came into conflict, the young artist struck out on his own and, by illustrating stories for a Berlin publication, raised enough money to travel to Paris in 1892. Combining time in front of art-class nudes with on-the-street sketching, the 21-year-old artist ignored the groundbreaking work being produced at the time by Monet and his ilk.
Back in Berlin after less than a year, Feininger found work for an American publisher and then as a cartoonist for a weekly humor magazine. His illustrations were soon published by others and in 1906 he was approached by the Chicago Tribune to pen a comic strip. The Kin-der-Kids  were born and following that, Wee Willie Winkie’s World .
Feininger reinvented Sunday comics. He broke through the traditional rectangular frame, filling the spaces around them with decorative elements that enhanced the mood of each episode. In the borders of the strip of November 25, 1906 (pictured above), roosters perch atop art deco style houses while a centrally located, sideways-glancing sun menacingly flashes its teeth.
In Wee Willie Winkie’s World, a small child describes to Uncle Feininger his impressions of a world where everything in the outsized landscape–trees, clouds, houses and even a locomotive–sports a face and occasionally limbs. At turns his surroundings amuse, awe and threaten him.
In one episode , Wee Willie Winkie notices a row of dormer windows in a house roof. To the imaginative child, “There is one tiny garret window, like a squalling little baby, with a drowsy, grumpy old nurse next it, who seems to say: ‘Let it squall if it will; I’m tired and can’t be bothered.’”5 Such is Wee Willie Winkie’s experience of adult’s attitudes toward upset children and a hint at what it was like for Feininger when his parents tossed him unceremoniously into a foreign land.
The rich fantasy life that sustained the artist as a youngster and brought him fame and prosperity as a cartoonist remained a vital source of imagery even after he moved on from illustration commissions and comic strip creations. The pedestrians going about their business In a Village Near Paris (Street In Paris, Pink Sky) (1909) step right out of Uncle Feininger’s imagination and onto the canvas.
By 1906 when Feininger was finally able to afford a second trip to Paris, the garish colors of Fauvism had been around for a while and Cubism was coming into its own. That year Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the death of Cezanne inspired a memorial retrospective in his honor, making his radical ideas about painting more widely available.
The influence of the Paris art scene followed Feininger back to Germany and appears in paintings like Carnival in Arcueil (1911) where the yellow of the buildings complements the violet of their roof tops and of the viaduct, setting up a visual vibration that enhances the action of the paraders who march off the canvas in the lower left.
In a departure from the gaiety of many of Feininger’s fanciful pictures, Untitled (Deserted Child) (1915)–a watercolor produced during the war years–depicts atop a hill three men with walking canes, outfitted in brown suits and turning their backs as they walk off, two to the left and one toward the background, while an orange-colored man heads off to the right. They leave behind a small, seated, blue figure positioned at the base of the hill, bent over by its contours and the booted foot of the central adult, a reflection of the artist’s position during World War I.
Weighed down by the constant news of the deaths, injuries and psychological traumas suffered by many of his artist friends, Feininger was unbearably torn between his loyalty to Germany and his status as an American citizen. While some of the work he produced during those years, like Untitled (Deserted Child) and Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) (pictured above), suggest this emotional state, others reflect the minimal impact the war had on the practical aspects of his daily life.
Feininger continued to labor at his oil paintings and The Green Bridge II (Grüne Brücke II) (1916), a remake of an earlier version, demonstrates the mastery he eventually achieved. Brush strokes are deliberate, colors are thoughtfully layered, and the artist has fully developed his characteristic style of indicating form with gradations of tone across each surface, dark meeting light wherever one plane turns into another.
Entering the sixth gallery of the Whitney exhibit, the visitor meets Feininger after he joined the Bauhaus, one of many organizations that sprouted up after the war, when the establishment of a German republic sparked new optimism for the country’s future. His new status as faculty member, with its accompanying studio space, served as a tonic for the war-wearied artist, providing him with financial stability. In 1921, disillusioned with the Bauhaus’s shift away from nature, Feininger was relieved to be freed of his tedious teaching duties and to accept the appointment as head of the school’s print workshop.
Nearing his fiftieth birthday, Feininger began to incorporate into his paintings an awareness of Cubism and lessons learned about light from his experiments with photography. In a tour-de-force of color and contrast, the awesomely beautiful Church of the Minorites II (Barfüsserkirche II)  (1926) epitomizes the unique qualities that set this artist apart from others.
Like many of Feininger’s paintings from this time onward, the Church of the Minorites II brings to mind the geometric elements and luminescent clarity of stained glass windows. In this oil on canvas, the artist portrays the figures with the same angularity as the forms of the church and, by miniaturizing them, establishes a humbling effect similar to that engendered by the interiors of many towering cathedrals. Here he comes closest to fulfilling his quest for the spiritual in art.
A few years later, Feininger painted Calm at Sea III (Stiller Tag am Meer III) (1929), another example of his singular vision. Using variations on the primary colors of red, yellow and blue, he has taken two sailboats and created an abstract study in stillness. Indicative of the relative obscurity of this artist, few images can be found online for referencing, providing yet another motivation for seeing the exhibit and/or buying the excellently written and lusciously illustrated catalog.
In 1933 when Hitler came to power, Feininger–despite having a Jewish wife–was initially enthusiastic about the possibilities such a strong leader offered Germany. After awhile, unable to maintain his denial of the dangers of Nazism, and determined to keep his art a central focus, he sought refuge in a seaside village that he knew well from previous visits. Though producing few oil paintings between 1932 and 1936, he continued to express himself in drawings and watercolors, finding solace in his peaceful surroundings.
By 1937, realizing that as a modern artist and an American it was no longer safe to remain in Germany, and invited to teach at a college in the United States, Feininger fled back to his country of origin, where he would reside until his death in 1956.
Docking in his hometown after fifty years abroad was disorienting for the 66-year-old adult. Where once low-lying buildings had brought visual access to rail yards and docks, now canyons flanked by tall buildings limited the view. In an effort to get his bearings, Feininger once again sought comfort in scenes of boats on water. Paintings done years later in his eighties have the ephemeral quality of a late Turner, depicting light on water and sky, in search of the sublime.
In the last gallery of the Whitney show, sharing the walls with more familiar subjects were new ones of Manhattan skyscrapers. Returning to New York seemed to have stirred to life the imaginative child for whom the city had once served as playground. Like the young child that had been drawn to trains and boats, the now much older one looked up at towering buildings, the new emblems of progress.
In a small and simply rendered watercolor, Untitled (Manhattan at Night) (1937), the artist places the viewer high above the street looking up at a powder blue sky punctuated with four twinkling stars between office buildings covered with rows of lit windows. Overwhelm turned to wonder. Inspired by the Manhattan cityscape, Feininger recovered the playfulness of his earlier years. Buildings took on cartoon shapes again and in Moonwake (1945), a gigantic figure walks among the houses.
Uncle Feininger reappeared with watercolors done in the fifties of odd looking creatures called “Ghosties”  (1954). Most notably, in a watercolor and ink of Montmartre, Paris (1938), two cartoon characters, looking for all the world like Boris and Natasha of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, approach each other from opposite directions on a night-darkened street. One longs to see the next frame of this nascent comic strip.
1 Barbara Haskell, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, 2011, 24.
2 Ibid, 3.
3 Ibid, 2.
4 Overheard comment at exhibit in front of The Green Bridge II.
5 Wee Willie Winkie’s World, The Chicago Sunday Tribune, September 16, 1906.