I invite you to explore Lyonel Feininger: An American in Berlin, 1914–1918, our latest viewing room exhibition showcasing 19 fine works that Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) made during World War I. The selection offers insight into the artist’s formal language as it developed during this time.
"[I] stopped painting a few minutes ago. As never before here I have worked with utmost concentration. My chest aches but that is only physical fatigue. I am happy because once again I am worth something."
When Feininger wrote these lines to his wife, Julia, on June 21, 1914, he couldn’t have guessed that five weeks later war would break out. At the time, he was working far from Julia and their children in a small studio in Weimar. He returned home to his family in Berlin-Zehlendorf shortly before German troops invaded Luxembourg.
Feininger and his family suffered the hardships and deprivations of wartime. As the war progressed, he also fought a personal battle as he struggled to develop what would ultimately become his signature style. In this pursuit, he sought to reconcile his natural playfulness with the severity of life in wartime Germany. As he wrote to his friend Adolf Knoblauch in 1917:
"The terrible events in the world weigh on us and leave dark traces in my work. But what is more natural than my always recurring struggle for gaiety in a picture that strives for the exact opposite—movement and color? Liberation? But the man behind such different works is always the same. In the gayest as much as in the most resigned pictures the aim is ultimate form for the thought. Always: ultimate form!"
For Feininger, the quest for "ultimate form" entailed experimentation in style, palette, and subject matter. This led to the advancement of his work and a breakthrough in 1917 with his first solo exhibition at Der Sturm gallery. More successes followed shortly after the war ended. In 1919, Feininger was hired as a professor at the newly founded Bauhaus and had works on view at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie. In September of that year, he reflected in a letter to his friend Fred Werner:
“‘Fame’ has come, almost over night, to your old chum Leo! for I have two paintings (cubic paintings, mind you!) in the 'National-Galerie' in Berlin! and seven Drawings, all are hanging in their glossy on the Wall! Think of me, a rank Outsider! An American, too! And then consider that Germany is broadminded enough to take and buy and hang my pictures in the ‘Holy of Holies’!....call me the first (or 'leading') Cubist in Germany!"