Lyonel Feininger Photographs, 1928-1939
A trip to the Getty Center always feels like a pilgrimage. Fighting the unrelenting LA traffic, circling down to what feels like the centre of the earth to find a parking spot, then riding the cable-pulled tram up the hill, by the time you make it to the peak where the Richard Meier structure sits, it’s a relief to stand back and soak in the majestic LA landscape, a city perhaps best viewed from above. We recently made this trek to see the revealing exhibition Lyonel Feininger Photographs, 1928-1939 – better known for his paintings, Feininger’s photography was an obscure area of his practice. The artist is currently having something of a moment, there is a concurrent retrospective of Feininger’s works on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (which originated at the Whitney Museum of American Art) the first in North America in almost 50 years.
Feininger was born in New York City in 1871 but moved to Germany at the age of 16 to study. When Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919, Feininger was his first faculty appointment – he was the master in charge of printmaking. By the 1920s, he was one of Germany’s best-known artists and worked in painting, drawing, printmaking and music. In 1928, at the age of 58, he took up photography. Influenced by fellow Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy who was a proponent of the “New Vision”, Feininger used his lens creatively to reframe, not just record experience, exploiting his camera for its productive possibilities rather than its straight reproductive ability. As with other practitioners of the “New Vision”, Feininger regularly employed extreme close-ups, negative printing, multiple exposures, and unusual angles to create images that were expressive and otherworldly. Fascinated with the effects of artificial lights, his photographs were often dramatically lit, exploring the play of light and shadow.
The exhibition brings together the versatile range of photographs Feininger took in a little over a decade from when he first picked up a camera. On a single night, March 26, 1929, he recorded multiple views of the Bauhaus building – these photographs are perhaps the most compelling of the works at the Getty. His austere subject, shrouded in darkness, glows from within with white halos of light, and evokes the energy and ideas in its hallowed halls. The window panes of the building allude to the plate of glass used in the photographic printing process. Sketches in the exhibition demonstrate that he worked concurrently in multiple media. He also used photography in connection with his paintings – a series of works from 1929-1931 taken at his studio in Halle are documentary and also explore the formal relationships between his canvases and their environment. In Paris, his lens was drawn to architectural views and street scenes, and during his summers along the Baltic Coast he would capture the landscape and buildings of the region as well as more intimate moments with his family. From 1932 to 1933 when his family left for Berlin after the National Socialist Party closed the Bauhaus, Feininger took Atget-like images of mannequins in shop windows which are both serene and eerie with their perfect faces at odds with their severed arms and torsos. Feininger used the surfaces of the glass windows behind which the mannequins were set to capture reflections, creating a surreal, dream-like quality to his images. Although he never exhibited his photographs, confining them to audiences composed of his family and friends, he continued to take pictures until his death in 1956.