Lyonel Feininger was the Zelig of early modernism. Born in Manhattan to a German-American father who fought in the American Civil War, Feininger was sent to study violin in Leipzig when he was 16 but enrolled in art school in Hamburg instead. After an enormously successful career as an illustrator and cartoonist—mostly in Europe but also, briefly, for the Chicago Sunday Tribune, where he debuted the year after Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland—he decided, at the age of 36, to take up oil painting. He had six canvases in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1911, collided with Cubism, showed with the artist groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, was a close friend of Klee and Kandinsky, and taught at the Bauhaus—he designed the cover of the school’s first manifesto—before moving back to the United States in 1937. The Whitney Museum’s current retrospective, which includes oils, watercolors, cartoons, photographs and the manuscript score of a fugue, is the first devoted to the artist in 45 years.
It begins with a disconcerting view of the relationship between fine art and vernacular visual culture at the turn of the last century. In a small side room, around a display of German cartoons, hang eight of Feininger’s Sunday Tribune covers from 1906. In one Tribune cover, a self-portrait of the artist as a marionettist dangles characters with names like Auntie Jim-James and Mysterious Pete. Feininger’s long, knuckly fingers look just like the ones that Austrian painter Egon Schiele used just a few years later. On another cover, Wee Willie Winkie talks to a hot and tired sun as it puts itself to bed under a blanket of clouds.
In the exhibition’s first large gallery, the same cartoon sensibility goes from paper to canvas. The White Man, a pipe-smoker in a white suit, is stretched-out and angular, brushing his black hat against the top of the frame as he hunches past a rosy cathedral tower. His giant feet look pinched from a Giacometti statue, and the tower, shaded halfway into abstraction, from a midperiod Mondrian—but the date is 1907, and the painting was copied from one of Feininger’s own earlier illustrations.
In the next few years, using an eccentric palette of complementary colors—blushing purples and lime-greens—and taut, edgy lines, Feininger produced a series of charming, self-contained fantasy worlds. Carnivals, street games and flâneurs move past massive, hill-like churches, or up and down streets that fade into the distance. His figures are never quite real, but it wouldn’t seem right to call him an Expressionist: if Expressionists use the distortion of appearances to get at emotional truths, Feininger looks more like a caricaturist, exaggerating appearances to get just a little way above them. The relationships are the same but the scale is altered, so that we’re back to childhood—not flying, quite, but floating.
In Sunday Morning, a man with a tiny head holds down his black top hat as he struggles across a blue river of cobblestones that flow down the middle of a pale yellow town. In City at the Edge of the World (1910), a small group of houses rendered in black ink and white gouache, surrounded by leafless trees, cluster together on a bubblelike hilltop under a passing white balloon. Views like these present an interesting argument about the nature of fantasy—in one sense, he puts us on the edge of the real, but in itself the scene he depicts is without periphery. The effect is reminiscent of gazing into a snow globe.
Beginning around 1912, Feininger adopted the language of Cubism, but not, at least initially, its aims: panels and folds of color don’t disrupt figures but serve merely as decorative textures for what would otherwise be flat images. The Green Bridge II (1916) closely recapitulates Green Bridge of seven years earlier. The lime-green bridge across the top of the frame is the same, an orange lantern is the same and the same Parisian workmen in dark clothing are rocking their way home. But the second painting is enlivened with curves and shadows.
Only after the Bauhaus and the First World War do Feininger’s shaded edges begin to look necessary—he begins, in the 1920s, to overlap dark, translucent planes to accent small patches of light. Church of the Minorites II captures the experience of light in a cathedral: small angular figures at the bottom of the picture scale up into shadows, walls, windows, light and sky; brown walls are transparent, but the light appears to have the weight of a body.
Sometimes a retrospective, by showing the development of an artist’s ideas, lets you better understand single pieces; other times, the pieces become indistinct and knit together into a single portrait of their maker. Commissioned in 1913 to design a wooden train set, Feininger began making little toys as Christmas presents for his sons; but when his sons got too old, he continued making them. Feininger never titled the set, but they’ve become known as the City at the Edge of the World.