Sackler Illuminates Forgotten Photography

Courtesy of Houghton Library

“Untitled (Night View of Trees and Streetlamp, Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau)” was taken in 1928 by Lyonel Feininger, an artist better known for his Cubist and Expressionist paintings.

Ask most art aficionados about Lyonel Feininger, and they’ll tell you of his vibrant cubist paintings. But the German-American artist also left behind thousands of negatives and photographs, some of which are now being showcased in “Lyonel Feininger: Photographs, 1928-1939,” a new exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum that opened March 30 and runs until June 2. Drawn from Harvard’s large collection of Feininger’s work, this exhibit explores an artist’s experiments with an emerging medium of expression for which his love is often overlooked.

Although already in his 50s, Feininger became fascinated by the new medium of photography while working in the 1920s at Germany’s famous Bauhaus school, an institute dedicated to modern art. Though his paintings were already well known at the time, Feininger did not expect his photographs to be placed on display. “Feininger never had any intention for these photos to be seen on exhibition. This was purely for himself, his own private form of therapy that helped him deal with the changing world around him,” said Laura L. Muir, assistant curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the curator of this exhibit.

The photos in the exhibit reveal Feininger’s preoccupation with light and shadow. He found light more difficult to express in painting, but photography allowed him to better capture its shades and contrasts. He frequently photographed at night to accentuate the illumination coming from street lamps, small lights, or fires. The exhibit includes eerie, lamplit views of the Bauhaus building at night, which Muir said reflected Feininger’s feelings of estrangement from the activities of the school. “They convey the growing sense of discomfort he felt, like being a fish out of water,” Muir said.

Feininger also explored more avant-garde methods of photo manipulation. “He often used negatives to turn night into day and light into darkness,” Muir said. The exhibit includes his experiments with double exposure, a technique wherein two different images are superimposed in one photograph.

The exhibition features Feininger works from 1928 to 1939, during which time the artist lived in Germany until increasing Nazi scrutiny pressed him to resettle in New York in 1937. He produced a series of bizarre images of mannequins’ reflections in 1932 and 1933, after a Nazi majority voted to close the Bauhaus in its home city of Dessau, but he took lighter shots—some with his new 35mm Leica camera—of his travels in Europe. In 1931, he visited Parisian neighborhoods where he had lived 25 years earlier, and Muir says his photographs of Paris were influenced by a sense of revisiting his past. “Rather than photographing the Tuileries or the Eiffel Tower, Feininger chose to focus on narrow streets and alleys. He often focused on destroyed buildings and ruins.”

Apart from the museum’s selection, Muir explained, thousands of undisplayed negatives and slides sit in storage in archives at Harvard. “This is only the tip of the iceberg,” Muir said. “Hopefully a student will be inspired to do some digging around in Harvard’s archives.”

Harvard possesses the world’s largest collection of Feininger’s work—paintings as well as photographs and negatives— which is held in the Houghton Library and the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Lyonel Feininger Archive. To construct this exhibit, Muir sifted through the thousands of negatives in Harvard’s possession and tried to organize the photographs to tell a particular story. “Being a curator is often like being a detective,” she said. “There are often 30 copies of a given photograph. Selecting which photographs to include and how to group them together to tell a story was very difficult but very rewarding.”

Muir explained that a large part of her process involved speaking to the artist’s late son, T. Lux Feininger, a world-renowned photographer in his own right. “The most amazing thing was getting to speak with T. Lux...[about] what it was like to live with his father as he was learning to take these photographs. His wife, Julia, was much less supportive of his photography. She thought it was a waste of time,” Muir said.

Leslie A. Morris, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Houghton Library, hopes the exhibit will raise recognition of Feininger’s works and of the Houghton’s expansive collection. “I hope, in particular, that Harvard students and faculty will come to the exhibition and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know anything like this was here,’” Morris said. “I hope it will inspire students to explore the library and museum catalogues and websites to discover other things they didn’t know about.”

Thomas W. Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums, explained that being connected to Harvard’s vast collection of Feininger’s work creates a responsibility both to the public and to Feininger of sharing that work with the world. “We sit on this enormous archive of his work, and we want people to know about that collection. We want people to understand why he was important,” Lentz said. The exhibit also features some of Feininger’s other experiments—works with watercolors, sketchings, and prints—from Harvard’s collection. “He was much more multi-dimensional than what people give him credit for,” Lentz said. “We have a responsibility to make people understand that.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: April 11

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that artist Lyonel Feininger produced a series of double-exposure works in 1932 and 1933. Although Feininger experimented with the technique of double exposure later in life, that series was in fact a set of images of mannequins’ reflections.

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