Lyonel Feininger: The Slippery Slope From Comics to Fine Art

Lyonel Feininger was the subject of three major exhibitions this year, two of them continuing in 2012. Yet, of the three, only the Whitney show makes any effort to cover all of Feininger’s varied career which involved comics, caricature, painting, photography, composing, and toy making.

Lyonel Feininger, c. 1910

Feininger was born in New York City in 1871. At the age of sixteen his parents sent him back to their native Germany to study music. Although Feininger was a deft musician, mastering several instruments, and composed a number of pieces, he preferred work as an illustrator for some of the many magazines and newspapers then being published in Germany. He made a name for himself as a satirical caricaturist and was very much in demand.

In 1906, the newspaper comics had become a great battleground between such publishing magnates as Hearst and Pulitzer. Chicago’s third-place paper, the Tribune, sent a talent scout to Europe to round up fresh material. Naturally, he went to Germany, the birthplace of comics pioneer Rudolph Dirks, whose very successful version of Wilhelm Busch’s Hans and Moritz, The Katzenjammer Kids, was a circulation-builder for Hearst’s New York Journal. Also important, at the time about a quarter of Chicago’s population were of German origin. Feininger’s fame as a caricaturist won him a contract for two strips: Wee Willie Winkie’s World and The Kin-Der-Kids. Feininger did not return to the US, but shipped his art across the Atlantic. Feininger was paid $6000 but stopped doing his strips after about ten months.

Self-portrait with Kin-Der-Kids

Aside from the Whitney, most studies of Feininger’s comics exclude his painting, and critics of his painting get sniffy about the comics. Feininger himself said. “Far be it from me to underrate those years as a comic draftsman. They were my only discipline.”

Perhaps it was the introduction to four-color newspaper printing, “Iridescent Polychromous Effulgence That Makes The Rainbow Look Like Lead Pipe”, as Hearst put it, that awakened Feininger’s color sense. At any rate, 1906 is when he began painting. He was 36. These early paintings demonstrate “explosive power” according to one review of the Whitney retrospective. Brillant colors, elongated or squashed figures, abstracted natural forms — these paintings are fun.

"Newspaper Readers" 1909

Feininger was associated with various Expressionist groups, experimenting with Cubism from 1911 or so. In 1919, he and other artists founded the Bauhaus movement. From this point on, Feininger’s painting seldom strayed from Cubism. His approach was very formal: a subject is viewed as though through a faceted crystal  and usually rendered in rather dark-toned earth colors. Exciting for a while, the effect becomes boring over decades of work. But for a long time Feininger insisted on ordering his work along rigid lines. He didn’t so much adopt Cubism “as he was swallowed by it”.

"Cathedral of Socialism" frontispiece for the Bauhaus Manifesto, 1919

Feininger took up photography as well and an exhibition of his photographs that opened in Berlin has just travelled to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and will remain in the US, in LA or Boston,  until June of 2012. Two of Feininger’s sons became photographers and their work is better known than that of their father.

"Drunk with Beauty, 1932

In 1913, Feininger began carving small toys — trains, boats, and figures — for his sons. This became a Christmas ritual that seized Feininger with excitement as the holiday neared: “… the time for my periodical craze for making toys for Christmas is approaching. Every year I get the urge to saw wood into bits and paint them in bright colours. The boys take it for granted that I shall make ‘mannequins’ for them.” The children loved these little carvings that were often presented as a scene or diorama. Twenty years after their father’s death, the grown sons put together a book of photographs of toys that they arranged called Lyonel Feininger: City at the end of the World. It is long out of print but parts of it may be seen here.

Feininger toys arranged and photographed by sons andreas and T. Lux Feininger. from Lyonel Feininger: City At the Edge of the World (1975)

Feininger’s work was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis and the Bauhaus was closed in 1932. His wife was of Jewish ancestry and Feininger could see what was coming. After 1933 he quit making toys. His paintings become looser, possibly as he considers the strictures of his life, but are still somewhat somber.  In 1937, Feininger accepted a teaching post in the United States.

 Feininger became interested in color again and experimented with new methods of applying Cubist dicta. He was fascinated by skyscrapers and, for a time, they replaced other landscape subjects.

"Blue Skyscrapers", 1937


By the beginning of the war, Feininger’s work began to show his apprehension. “Spook” revives the figures of comics and toys as something more ambiguous.

"Spook", 1940

At the end of his life Feininger did some startling work, like “Mystic River” in 1951. “…his career [was] much more non-linear than many would have it, those who praise the early stuff and dismiss the later work.” And, at the end of World War II, he began making toys again.


"Mystic River", 1951

A selection of Feininger paintings that show a progression from the bright works of 1907 to the dim artifice of his Cubism. And a few interesting items from the later years. (Several of the images here come from this site.)

The New York Review of books has an interesting review, but it’s behind a paywall. If you want to read it, go to your local library.

Some Kin-Der-Kids pages via google from the complete run published in 1980.

One comment on “Lyonel Feininger: The Slippery Slope From Comics to Fine Art

  1. Keith says:

    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and respectful piece! Feininger was an art treasure and a treasure as a human being.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s