Lyonel Feininger

Lyonel Feininger

By Barbara Haskell

Written for the concert Bauhaus Bach, performed on Oct 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

Lyonel Feininger—world-renowned painter, printmaker, and caricaturist—was born in New York City on July 17, 1871 to German-American parents, both concertizing musicians. By age nine, he was studying violin with his father; by 12, he was performing in public. His childhood immersion in music produced a complicated response: on one hand, a lifelong fealty to music and the German musical tradition; on the other, resistance to music’s overbearing presence in the household and the pressure on him to become a musician. The latter may have led him to turn to fine art soon after he arrived in Germany at age 16, where he had been sent to study at the Leipzig Conservatory. Despite his career switch, he continued to play music all his life, calling it the “language of my innermost soul which stirs me like no other form of expression.”

Feininger’s childhood musical heroes were Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Introduced in 1888 to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly the Well-Tempered Clavier, he became a disciple. At the Bauhaus, Weimar, where Feininger was appointed Master in 1919, his involvement with Bach intensified, especially after he became acquainted with The Art of Fugue through the Weimar composer Hans Bronner, with whom he often played Bach compositions. For Feininger’s 50th birthday, Bronner presented him with an organ fugue he had written. The gift inspired Feininger to spend the next 13 days composing a fugue of his own. Over the next six years, he created 11 more fugues, mostly for organ. Feininger’s fugues were performed several times between 1924 and 1926, but they were difficult to play, and most performances disappointed him. In 1927 he abandoned musical composition, probably because of the time it took away from his painting. By then, however, the structure of polyphonic counterpoint had become the basis of his fine art. “Bach’s essence has found expression in my paintings,” he wrote. “The architectonic side of Bach whereby a germinal idea is developed into a huge polyphonic form.” To the end of his life, he credited Bach with having been his “master in painting.”

Ms. Haskell is an American art historian. She is a curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she curated the recent exhibition Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World.