Important Art by Lyonel Feininger
With this painting, Feininger made a notable debut at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants in Paris, revealing a combination of his cartooning experience and avant-garde credentials. While this work depicts the "types" of people he had often caricatured, they are placed into a distorted architectural space that suggests Cubist faceting and Fauvist color. He combines these expressive elements to create an atmosphere of mysterious space and urban isolation. The large green bridge looms over a street lined with buildings painted in contrasting red, creating a sense of unease and tension. The figures on the street below, a somber group that includes workers, prostitutes, children, and a sailor, appear unaware that they are being watched from the bridge by a group of top-hatted men.
The work's non-descriptive use of color led the Salon's hanging committee to include Feininger's work in a room of Fauve paintings. According to one, admittedly apocryphal, story told by Robert Delaunay, when Matisse arrived to hang his work in the same room, he examined Feininger's entry for some time before leaving to "work over his painting before he would let it stand comparison." Whether this truly happened, Feininger's painting was admired in a number of contemporary reviews and he painted a second version in 1916, now in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Drawing on the Cubist faceting of forms, Feininger evokes the power of wind and water with this image of a brutal coastline. His linear style juxtaposes the gridded horizontals of the mole (another term for a pier or breakwater) and the verticals of the lighthouse with a series of dynamic diagonals to suggest a raging storm. While the majority of the canvas is monochromatic, like the Cubists, Feininger enlivens the central portion with reds and blues that pierce through the atmospheric ground. This balance of strong line and luminous color would prove characteristic of Feininger's paintings, bringing together elements of representation and abstraction, definition and evocation to create a dramatic harmony.
Seascapes and harborscapes were a repeating subject across the decades of Feininger's career. Many were inspired by his trips to the German coast, where he spent his summers, although his first inspiration came from the busy New York harbor; as a young boy, he drew the boats that passed by Lower Manhattan (and also enjoyed building model ships).
Feininger's woodcut appeared on the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto, representing the utopian vision of the school with a "Cathedral of Socialism." Deliberately using the Gothic cathedral to reference its communal sense of spiritual vision, as well as the joint effort of artists and artisans, this image spoke to the unique formulation of the Bauhaus, which sought to bring together "arts" and "crafts." Although the school would turn towards a machine aesthetic in the 1920s, its founding was marked by an interest in spiritual harmony, represented not simply by the church, but with the integration of that building into a dynamic, cosmic space of brilliant and reflecting light. With its transparencies and angular structure, Feininger's cathedral reflects the influence of Bruno Taut's utopian glass architecture.
Early Bauhaus culture was inspired by the structure and community of medieval guilds, so Feininger's connection to the Gothic past asserted this influence. At the same time, his use of abstraction in the form of the cathedral made it undeniably modern. The Cubist fracturing of forms and Futurist dynamic force lines influenced the style of Feininger's woodcut, yet its execution was purposefully crude to evoke pre-industrial imperfections. Cubo-Expressionism combined elements from the most revolutionary fronts of the avant-garde. At the same time, the very format of the woodcut was old-fashioned and suggested a hand-rendered, painstaking process that connected to the middle ages, before more sophisticated printmaking techniques were developed. In both subject and style, this print echoed the spirit of the manifesto itself, which spoke to the need for social change and revolution as well as the training of artists and craftsmen for a new age of rebuilding. Feininger's blend of avant-garde and traditional influences created a model that was visually modern and yet conventional in its symbolism. This was a balance that would dominate Bauhaus ideology in its early years.