Artist Dossier: Lyonel Feininger

"Even today," says curator Barbara Haskell, "people are befuddled — how can the Whitney be showing Lyonel Feininger?" With his German name, years of teaching at the Bauhaus, and branding by the Nazis as a degenerate artist, Feininger, who is being celebrated with a retrospective, organized by Haskell, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art from the 30th of this month through October 16, is often overlooked as a native son. The New York-born artist has defied stylistic as well as national labeling. Although he is best known for prismatic renderings of village churches and Baltic seascapes that combine the symbolism of the German Romantics with the fractured planes of the Cubists, his influences are broad — from newspaper comics to Der Blaue Reiter, from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College. "Feininger is hard to classify, and I think this has impeded a proper understanding of his achievement," says Jane Kallir, of New York’s Galerie St. Etienne, which specializes in artists active in Germany and Austria during the early part of the 20th century. "He wore so many hats."

This multifarious approach is one reason for the attention his work is getting now. "Feininger is the perfect model of the postmodern artist," Haskell explains. "While the paintings are the spine of his output, he predicted a much freer attitude toward media." Indeed, Feininger worked in a wide range of media: oils, watercolors, sketches, photographs, woodcuts — even hand-carved playthings that exhibit his signature humor, borrowing from childhood with both nostalgia and irony while pushing the envelope in formal experimentation. The gamut is on display in the comprehensive Whitney show and a pair of traveling exhibitions of works on paper and photographs from Harvard University’s art museums, at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne through July 17, and then at the Getty in Los Angeles before returning to Cambridge in March 2012.

Feininger is drawing notice in the saleroom too. At Sotheby’s New York in May 2007, his 1915 oil "Jesuiten III," depicting three Jesuits eyeing a streetwalker, raced past its $9 million high estimate to $23.3 million, and at the house’s sale in London this February, the 1912 steamboat picture "Raddampfer an Landungssteg" ("Side-Wheel Steamer at the Landing") more than doubled expectations when it brought $5.1 million. "His market was for a long time undervalued and overlooked," says David Norman, worldwide cochair of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, adding that Feininger has benefited from a general change in buyers’ tastes over the past decade, from favoring "delicate, retiring pictures" to preferring those with greater visual impact. "People are drawn to strong compositions and brilliant color. They want something that goes bam! off the wall."

Feininger’s facility with line and his use of high-key color are rooted in his early career as a caricaturist and comic-strip pioneer. Born in New York on July 17, 1871, to professional musicians of German ancestry, he enrolled at 16 in the Leipzig Conservatory of Music. His interest in drawing, however, ultimately led him to art school, which he attended in Hamburg, Berlin, and France. He worked as a cartoonist for 20 years, publishing his drawings in newspapers and magazines in both the United States and Germany, notably "The Kin-der-Kids" and "Wee Willie Winkie’s World" strips for the Chicago Tribune. In 1901 he wed Clara Fürst, daughter of the painter Gustav Fürst, and had two daughters with her. In 1905 he met and fell in love with Julia Berg. They both divorced their spouses and married, ultimately having three sons. At 36, upon returning to Berlin from a sojourn studying at the Académie Colarossi, in Paris, Feininger made his first painting, a still life, and decided to devote himself to fine art. He became a member of the Berliner Sezession in 1909 and soon developed ties with the avant-garde groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, three of whose members — Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Alexei von Jawlensky — joined with him to form Die Blaue Vier, or Blue Four. Feininger was a founding member of and teacher in the print shop at the Bauhaus, contributing his woodcut "Cathedral" to illustrate the cover of Walter Gropius’s 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto (the two later reunited while teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1945). Feininger left Germany when the Nazis came to power, and after a short stint in California, he returned to New York and set up a studio where he worked until his death in 1956.

The Feininger works that are most sought-after, says Jay Vincze, a senior director in the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Christie’s London, are those from about 1912 to 1915, when his brand of Cubism, which he dubbed "visionary" for its lyrical transmutation of light and movement, began to supplant his earlier cartoonish style. Pieces from later in his career, particularly the ones produced after his return to New York, have been unfairly neglected, according to Achim Moeller, of Moeller Fine Art, who is mounting a show of drawings and watercolors to run concurrently with the Whitney’s and who plans to publish the first volume of a catalogue raisonné by year’s end. The artist’s American period, Moeller says, addressed similar interests in different ways. He likens Feininger’s depictions of skyscrapers to those of the church spire in the German village of Gelmeroda, a frequent early subject, "but with a more abstract, linear, and cosmic approach."

Moeller believes that the spotlight trained on Feininger recently by the museum shows and his works’ auction performance is likely to rouse American interest not only in his New York period but in all his work. Enthusiasm is already escalating in the salesroom. In May 2010 bidders at Sotheby’s New York drove Feininger’s bold, whimsical 1934 oil on canvas "Der rote Geiger" ("The Red Fiddler") past its $7 million high estimate to $7.4 million. He is developing a following, moreover, that transcends his traditional American and Western European base, attracting, according to Norman, both Russians with a taste for strong colors and collectors in Asia willing to look beyond blue-chip names in their search for increasingly rare first-rate modernist works.

Feininger’s paintings come on the market fairly infrequently, since most of his 600 canvases are in museum collections. His works on paper, in contrast, are in plentiful supply, with several hundred appearing in day sales over the past half-dozen years in New York, London, and many of the German auction houses. "He was a busy, eager artist," notes dealer Michael Beck, whose Düsseldorf gallery Beck & Eggeling has mounted four Feininger shows in recent years. Norman notes that the "vast majority" of these works sell, often at above-estimate prices, which he says "speaks to a healthy buying interest."

Moeller’s show has works on paper ranging in price from $50,000 for black-and-white ink drawings from Feininger’s American period to $300,000 for charcoals and watercolors made during his early years in Germany. "The most highly prized," says Norman, "are the crisply drawn, very full compositions of street scenes that relate to major paintings from around 1907 to 1915." One of these, "Die grüne Brücke" ("The Green Bridge"), a 1909 watercolor with pen and ink that conveys Feininger’s vision of cities "as the stage set of a fairy tale," in the words of critic Robert Hughes, brought $231,500 at Christie’s New York in November 2004. "I think any excellent work offered in 2004 could very easily reach twice that price level or more today," says Norman. Larger compositions with refined draftsmanship and intense hues, often depicting ships, are also in demand, says Norman, ranging in value from $100,000 to $250,000. Sketchier, less colorful sheets command lower prices. The least costly, going for between $7,000 and $20,000, according to Galerie St. Etienne’s Kallir, are the tiny hand-printed woodcuts that Feininger usually pulled in editions of between one and five. Collectors are by and large unacquainted with his photographs, says Moeller, which he created for personal pleasure and did not promote.

Feininger’s market is international, notes Vincze, of Christie’s, thanks to his exposure on both sides of the Atlantic, starting with his first group show, at Berlin’s Der Sturm gallery in 1913, and his association with the earliest exhibition of Die Blaue Vier in New York, organized by dealer Galka Scheyer in 1925. Difficult to pigeonhole in any one school or movement, he is, Haskell states, very much an artist of the 21st century. "Feininger is not going out of fashion," says Vincze. "He’s on everyone’s wish list."

"Artist Dossier: Lyonel Feininger" originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's June 2011 Table of Contents.