Harvard Art Museums Opens Exhibition of Lyonel Feininger Photographs

One of the most versatile talents of the modern art movement in Germany, the American-born Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) is celebrated as a master of caricature, figurative painting, and a distinctive brand of cubism, but he also created a fascinating body of photographic work that is virtually unknown. Drawn primarily from the collections at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the exhibition Lyonel Feininger: Photographs, 1928–1939, presented at the Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum March 30 through June 2, 2012, offers the first opportunity to consider his achievement within the medium. Around 60 of Feininger’s photographs, as well as related works on paper and two of his early cameras, are on display.

Untitled (Night View of Trees and Streetlamp, Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau) (detail), 1928, Lyonel Feininger. Photo: Houghton Library, Harvard University

The photographs are complemented by an installation of around 25 of the artist’s drawings and watercolors, plus a major painting from the collection of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. The works on paper are all drawn from the recent bequest of William S. Lieberman to the Busch-Reisinger. The painting, Gross Kromsdorf III (1921), was a gift from Feininger’s wife, Julia, in 1964.

The exhibition focuses on the rich and productive period between 1928 (when Feininger first took up the camera) and the late 1930s, when he was exploring an array of avant-garde photographic techniques and making his own prints. Despite his early skepticism about this “mechanical” medium, the painter was inspired by the enthusiasm of his sons Andreas and T. Lux as well as the innovative work of his fellow Bauhaus master and Dessau neighbor László Moholy-Nagy. In the fall of 1928 the 57-year-old Feininger began to conduct his own experiments, discovering in photography a new means of energizing and advancing his artistic program.

Lyonel Feininger: Photographs, 1928–1939 was curated by Laura Muir, Assistant Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, Harvard Art Museums. Muir also authored the accompanying catalogue. The exhibition and catalogue are based on new research on the collection of the artist’s negatives and slides in the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Lyonel Feininger Archive, which has only recently been catalogued and digitized, making it fully accessible for the first time. Muir’s research also draws on Feininger’s extensive correspondence housed at Houghton Library and her interviews with the artist’s recently deceased son T. Lux. The majority of Feininger’s photographs, which he shared with only a few close friends and family, remained in his private collection until his death in 1956. In 1987 his son T. Lux donated them to Houghton Library. The exhibition also includes key loans from other US and German lenders, including the Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.
“When he took up the camera at the Bauhaus in 1928, Lyonel Feininger was at the height of his fame as a painter. While he remained committed to that practice, he saw photography as a new means of exploring his interests in reflections, transparency, and the effects of light and shadow,” said Muir. “Experimenting with night imagery, negative printing, multiple exposures, and radical enlarging and cropping, he created a strikingly modern yet surprisingly personal body of work that has remained virtually unknown.”

Feininger’s first photographs were atmospheric night views of the Bauhaus Building and the nearby neighborhood, including Untitled (Night View of Trees and Streetlamp, Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau) (1928) and Bauhaus (Mar. 26, 1929). In Halle, while working on a painting commission from the city, Feininger recorded architectural sites in works such as Halle Market with the Church of St. Mary and the Red Tower (1929–30), and experimented with multiple exposures in photographs such as Untitled (Street Scene, Double Exposure, Halle) (1929–30), a hallucinatory image that merges two views of pedestrians and moving vehicles. One of his Halle paintings, Bölbergasse (1931), makes an appearance in Untitled (Unfinished Painting in Studio, Halle) (1931), an image that explores the relationship between the canvas and the space in which it was created. During summers in Deep an der Rega, a small fishing village on the Baltic Coast (in present-day Poland), he returned to his longtime subjects of seascapes and bathers in photographs such as Untitled (Lux Feininger, Deep an der Rega) (1932), a lively snapshot of his son suspended above the water in a backflip. In the months after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus and prior to Feininger’s departure from Dessau in March 1933, he made a series of unsettling views of mannequins and reflections in shop windows such as Drunk with Beauty (1932). In 1937 the American-born Feininger permanently settled in New York City after a nearly 50-year absence, and photography served as an important means of reacquainting himself with the city. The off-kilter bird’s-eye view he made from his studio Untitled (Second Avenue El from Window of 235 East 22nd Street, New York) (1939) is a dizzying image of an American subject in the style of European avant-garde photography, and mirrors the artist’s own precarious and disorienting position between two worlds and the past and present.
The exhibition previously traveled to the Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (February 26–May 15, 2011); the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, Pinakothek der Moderne (June 2–July 17, 2011); and is currently at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (October 25, 2011–March 11, 2012). The Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum will be the final venue for this traveling exhibition.

The Harvard Art Museums, among the world’s leading art institutions, comprise three museums (Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler) and four research centers (Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art, the Harvard Art Museums Archives, and the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis). The Harvard Art Museums are distinguished by the range and depth of their collections, their groundbreaking exhibitions, and the original research of their staff. The collections include approximately 250,000 objects in all media, ranging in date from antiquity to the present and originating in Europe, North America, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Integral to Harvard University and the wider community, the art museums and research centers serve as resources for students, scholars, and other visitors. For more than a century they have been the nation’s premier training ground for museum professionals and are renowned for their seminal role in developing the discipline of art history in this country. www.harvardartmuseums.org

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