Lyonel Feininger Photographer

Lyonel Feininger Photographer
An Interview with the curator Laura Muir

The catalogue "Lyonel Feininger. Photographs, 1928-1939" that accompanies the exhibition with the same title has been awarded with the German Photo Book Prize in Gold 2012. Did you expect the book to be that successful?

LM: Since Feininger is otherwise so well known, I thought that people would be intrigued by his photographic work and am thrilled that the catalogue has received such a positive response.

Your catalogue has been praised as being reserved in its presentation for this well-known Bauhaus artist. Which were the basic criteria for the book regarding the format and graphic presentation?

LM: The book’s designer, Katie Andresen, and I worked together to come up with a design that seemed appropriate for the material. We liked the idea of a smaller format, not only because it suggested the size of the photographs, but also reflected the private nature of Feininger’s photographic activities.

How did you select Feininger’s photographs – there are over 18,000 negatives and slides at the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Lyonel Feininger Archive – for the catalogue?

LM: The majority of Feininger’s existing vintage prints (about 500) are in the collection of Harvard’s Houghton Library and the exhibition is drawn primarily from that material (we did not make any new prints from the negatives). The prints mostly date from the late 1920s and 1930s when Feininger had regular access to a darkroom. In making the selection, I wanted to represent the range of subjects and diversity of approaches that he was experimenting with during this period and then organized the photographs into sections such as Bauhaus experiments, Baltic Coast, shop windows, and so on. In addition to the works from Harvard, the exhibition is supplemented by key loans from the Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin, the Stiftung Moritzburg, Kunstmuseum des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt, Halle, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and a handful of private collections.

Lyonel Feininger, Bauhaus, 26. März 1929

Lyonel Feininger, Bauhaus, 26. März 1929

Lyonel Feininger, o.T. (Nachtaufnahme, Bäume und Straßenlaterne, Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau), 1928
Lyonel Feininger, o.T. (Modepuppe im Schaufenster und Spiegelung von Lyonel und Julia Feininger, Dessau), 1932

Why did not anybody publish Lyonel Feininger’s complete photographic work so far?

LM: Feininger’s photographs have made appearances in publications over the years, but mainly as illustrations to chronologies or as comparatives to his paintings. The only photographs to have been extensively reproduced are those Feininger made in the city of Halle (1929-1931) in connection with a painting commission. I was interested in Feininger’s photographs as works of art in their own right and approached the subject as a photo-historian rather than as a Feininger specialist. I think that this shift in perspective is what it took to get this project off the ground. Although the vintage photographs have been accessible, the negatives and slides have only recently been catalogued and digitized. This important development enabled me to more fully identify and contextualize the vintage photographs, which are the subject of the exhibition.

When did Feininger start taking photos and why?

LM: He began making photographs with serious artistic intent in 1928 at the Bauhaus. I think he was influenced by the great enthusiasm for photography at the school in the late 1920s as well as the photographic work of his fellow Bauhaus master and next-door neighbor, Moholy-Nagy, and perhaps most importantly by the photographic activities of his children.

As Feininger’s three sons – Lawrence, Andreas and Theodore Lucas (T. Lux) – as well as their half-sister Lore all became well-known photographers in the 1920s and 1930s it seems surprising that their father, on the peak of his artistic career at the Bauhaus, also starts experimenting with the relatively new medium photography. Did his children influence him in his decision and/or his photographic manner?

LM: Feininger followed his children’s photographic activities with great interest. Andreas had installed a darkroom in the basement of their house in Dessau and, according to Lux, Lyonel constantly wanted to see what he and his brother had done. Although Feininger was well established as a painter, he was drawn to the new possibilities for experimentation that photography opened up to him. His children may have advised him on certain darkroom techniques, such as negative printing, but they all strove to develop very independent and distinctive styles.

Lux Feininger is most popular for his energetic photographs of how life was at the Bauhaus. How does it come that Lyonel Feininger often picks the stillness of night as a central theme?

LM: Lux’s photographs reflect his experience at the Bauhaus, which was very lively, dynamic, and social. His father, on the other hand, was by then somewhat estranged from the daily life of the school. His night photographs evoke a more solitary and contemplative relationship with the Bauhaus. But as we know of his earlier night imagery, Feininger had long been interested in the stillness and ambiguities of the night. Photography offered a new language in which to explore this ongoing concern.

"Lyonel Feininger. Photographs, 1928-1939", after a grand exhibition tour, has now arrived its last venue and, at the same time, has come back home. Any concluding thoughts?

LM: It is fitting that the final venue of the exhibition should be at Harvard, which between the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Houghton Library, possesses one of the world’s largest collections of Feininger’s art and documents. I’m really pleased with how much attention the exhibition and catalogue have generated in Feininger’s photography. However, they highlight just a small part of the collection and my hope is that this project will encourage further research of this fascinating body of work and the Feininger collections at Harvard.

Laura, thank you very much for the interview.

LM: Thank you, Anja!

Anja Guttenberger interviewed Laura Luir for

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