Street in Treptow, 1931
Woodcut on thin Mino Japan paper
6 ½ x 11 in.
Signed in pencil
Museum purchase made possible by a 1975 NEA Grant.
Essay by guest writer, Todd Giles, PhD
Associate Professor of English at MSU Texas
“That which is seen has to be inwardly transformed and crystallized.” ~ Feininger
Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) was an American painter, cartoonist, etcher, teacher and composer of classical music who spent much of the first 30 or so years of his life living in Europe. In 1887, at the age of 16, the young Feininger travelled from New York City to his ancestral Germany to study music; he quickly found that art was his real passion, though, and started his working career as an illustrator and cartoonist for several magazines in the US, France and Germany. It was not until he was 36 that he finally made the leap to fine art.
Though not as well-known in the States as some of his American contemporaries such as Charles Sheeler, John Marin and Stuart Davis (all represented in the WFMA’s permanent collection), Feininger left a more lasting impression in Germany, where he was associated with several artistic movements, including the Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). He also had the honor of be being the first faculty member appointed to the Bauhaus school in Germany in 1919, where he oversaw the printmaking workshop. In fact, the Bauhaus’ first publication was a series of 12 woodcuts by Feininger.
With the rise of fascism in the early 1930s, Feininger’s art (along with nearly all of Modernism) was declared “degenerate” by the Nazi party, who confiscated more than 400 of his works. With that, he and his wife returned stateside in 1936, as was the case with many European artists when World War II broke out, including Salvador Dali and Josef Albers, for example, who are likewise both held in the Museum’s collection.
Woodcut is one of the oldest and most widely-used forms of printmaking. As opposed to etching, say, in woodcut it is the raised surface which contains the positive image that is printed, whereas the background, or negative space, is that which is cut away. Ink is applied with a roller to the raised surface, paper is placed on top, and the image, in reverse, is transferred to the paper by running it through a printing press or rubbing the back of the paper. This basic form of printmaking came back into vogue in Germany in 1905 when the group of artists known as Die Brücke (The Bridge) adopted the method for its simplicity and directness in contradistinction to the romantic classicism of the academics.
Although Feininger is primarily known as a painter, he produced over four hundred etchings, woodcuts and lithographs throughout his career. His depiction of a former German borough southeast of Berlin in Street in Treptow (1931) employs a very flat and angular proto-Cubist aesthetic reminiscent of Georges Braque’s Houses at L’Estaque (1908), in which the houses depicted appear to tumble down over one another in their flat angularity. The term proto-Cubism marks an art historical moment of transition from 1906 to 1910 that embraced a radical aesthetic experimentation characterized by the stripping away of objective representation through the geometrization of form, a flattening of depth and perspective, and a reduction of the color palette.
Though the field of Street in Treptow is very flat, it does seem to carry a certain depth of perspective and sense of movement, as if we are walking from left to right down a gently sloping street. Feininger accomplishes this by overlaying forms that appear to be broken up and fractured. Unlike his Cubist contemporaries such as Picasso and Leger, Feininger’s interest lay not in presenting objects from several simultaneous points of view, but rather in exploring spatial depth and movement, linking him closer to, say Marcel Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 from 1912. We might also think of Feininger’s depiction of buildings as analogous to a cardboard box that has been “undone,” showing us what was once an object in the round now flattened out from three dimensions to one. We see at one and the same time the sides and rooftops of the individual buildings, which confuse our senses through their overlappings, angularity and fragmentation. However we walk away from this work, its splintering and angularity surely leave us pondering the artistic tradition, not to mention how we ourselves conceive of things like perspective, depth, and representation. In my book, if you don’t step away with questions, where’s the fun?
Luckhardt, Ulrich. Lyonel Feininger. Hirmer, 2019.
Ross, John, et al. The Complete Printmaker. The Free Press, 1990.
Street in Treptow from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas