“Lyonel Feininger: At The Edge of The World” at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), The Kin-der-Kids from The Chicago Sunday Tribune, 23-3/8″ x 17-13/16″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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In terms of historical significance–of having contributed, in a pivotal and even radical manner, to a specific art form–Lyonel Feininger’s gift to world culture lies in his comic strips.

Tucked away in a side gallery of Lyonel Feininger: At The Edge of the World, a retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art, you’ll find pages from The Chicago Sunday Tribune featuring The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World, Feininger’s forays into the comic strip. Both were short-lived–their total run lasted from 1906-1907–but they still resonate. Even at this date, Feininger’s comics are special: His fragmentary avant-whimsies are closer to tone poems than rock-’em-sock’-em cartoons.

Lyonel Feininger - In a Village Near Paris

Lyonel Feininger, In a Village Nea Paris (Street in Paris, Pink Sky) (1909), oil on canvas, 39-3/4″ x 32″; courtesy The University of Iowa Museum of Art

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Feininger’s efforts in painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and toy-making–yes, toy-making–are considerably less innovative.  They iterate, rather than invigorate, modernist tropes. Feininger’s early cityscapes–vertiginous riffs on Munch peppered with loping, angular caricatures and rendered in a moody and garish palette–make for an oddly tempered expressionism. When Feininger latched onto Cubism, he tweaked its conventions with a convert’s heady abandon. All those fractured compositions! Feininger can be a bit over the top.

Lyonel Feininger, Barfüsserkirche II (Church of the Minorities II) (1926), oil on canvas, 42-3/4″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy The Walker Art Center

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But you know what? At The Edge of the World is a thrilling exhibition. Its pleasures build slowly, almost counter-intuitively, and then kaleidoscope into unlikely orchestrations of color, crystalline structures and uncanny sweeps of rarified light. Innovator, schminnovator, you think–Feininger’s the real deal. Not until the last gallery, wherein this American-in-Berlin returned to the States and lost any sense of pictorial urgency, does the exhibition falter. Up until that point, At The Edge of the World will have you wondering where Feininger has been all your life.

Congratulations to organizers Barbara Haskell and Sasha Nicholstheir exhibition underscores, with brilliant understatement, why this Blaue Reiter compadre and Bauhaus pedagogue merits attention. It’s been fifty-five years since the last retrospective. Now, in other words, is the time to acquaint yourself with this eminently discoverable figure.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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