Perhaps distance is the only way of thinking about Feininger’s art…
Sunset at Deep (Sunset), Lyonel Feininger, 1930
From The Smart Set:
It is difficult to look at a painting such as “Sunset at Deep” (1930) — which captures the stillness of the seaside moment in geometrical shapes, the white blazing sun low and strong on the rectangle of water that holds a sliver of a sailboat — without recalling any number of Friedrich’s seascapes, with their force and contemplative effect. Feininger’s works do not value man’s progress, but rather our very humbleness before nature. Deep, a town on the Baltic Sea, was a constant retreat and a place of inspiration for the artist. Gone are the outlines of characters, carnival crowds, and cyclists. His paintings in the late 1920s and ’30s become more and more expansive in color and shape, depicting seascapes and landscapes of geometrical forms that are infused with precise shafts of white light coming from a window, a crevice, or alley. They are reflective canvases that evoke little of modernism’s mechanical objects. “My artistic faith is founded on a deep love of nature,” he once told an interviewer. So much of his philosophy is grounded on the near spiritual force of art’s ability to connect us to the natural world.
When Feininger took to photography in the 1920s, he went out into the woods near the Bauhaus complex and photographed the trees in both noon and evening light. As in his landscape paintings of the period, Feininger’s perspective was that of distance. “Everything at a distance turns into poetry,” wrote the 18th-century German poetic Novalis, “distant mountains, distant people, distant events: all become Romantic.”
Untitled (Night View of Trees and Streetlamp, Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau), Lyonel Feininger, 1928
And perhaps distance, with all its connotations, is the only way of thinking about Feininger’s art. His expatriation was by choice, but his repatriation was forced. When the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s, Bauhaus and modernism were its easy targets. Feininger, whose wife was Jewish, resisted the urge to leave Germany after so many of his fellow artists had gone. As “Der Amerikaner” in the Kaiser’s Germany, he survived World War I as a dutiful enemy alien, reporting daily to the local police station; he had no reason to believe this second war would be any different. But by 1937, with fewer and fewer people interested in his paintings, and with the threats against modern artist ever stronger, Feininger and his wife left for New York, just months before the Nazis mounted their infamous “Degenerate Art” show in Munich, which included a few of Feininger’s canvases.