The famous American painter and graphic artist Lyonel Feininger (1871 – 1956) lived in Dessau for some years in the 1920s just like his artist colleagues Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer. In 1919 he was appointed to be the first Master of the State Bauhaus in Weimar by Walter Gropius, Bauhaus founder and Architect of the Dessau Bauhaus building. On Gropius‘ wishes Feininger moved with the Bauhaus from Weimar to Dessau and stayed with the school nearly the longest of all his colleagues. He spent the years in Dessau experimenting, this was the time when some of his most important works emerged.The move from Weimar to Dessau was not easy for Feininger. He declined a chair at the Bauhaus school in Weimar, the successor institution of the Bauhaus. His friendship with Walter Gropius, his artist colleagues and his loyalty to the Bauhaus community seemed to be very important to him in spite of growing differences. What clinched the decision for him was the chance to follow his own artistic inclinations without having to teach. When Fritz Hesse, the mayor of Dessau visited the Bauhaus in Weimar to bring it to Dessau and was received by Kandinsky and Feininger, Feininger hald already declared that he would go to Dessau if he did not have to teach. Both the town and his Bauhaus colleagues accepted this decision. Lyonel Feininger’s relationship with the Bauhaus was ambivalent. On the one hand he valued his personal contacts and the intellectual interchange with the other painters, on the other hand he distanced himself from the institution that called itself a College of Form but that was concentrating more and more on design.
In July 1926 the Bauhaus had long since moved to Dessau and, shortly before the opening of the Bauhaus building, Feininger moved into one of the Master’s Houses designed by Gropius. Feininger’s position at the Bauhaus was unique. He belonged to the teaching staff at a school but he did not have to teach, he only had to create an atmosphere. This was an indication as to how open and unconventional the intellectual climate at the Bauhaus was, and how much esteem the artist personality enjoyed.
Feininger who had a special aura offered Bauhaus students the possibility to take part in a consultation in his atelier where he explained his works. He was convinced that art could not be taught so he tried to influence his students with conversations rather than didactic lecturing. It is thus possible to talk of a third private Bauhaus painting class alongside those of Klee and Kandinsky.
Feininger only took part sporadically in the Bauhaus life. Now and again he went to the popular parties (sometimes in fancy dress) but he normally kept a low profile.
The Bauhaus acknowledged him with exhibitions. Even the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, who did not really know how to handle Feininger, used the photograph of the great master’s pointing finger for a Bauhaus brochure. The integrity of Feininger and his work withstood all Bauhaus disputes.
In late autumn 1933 the Bauhaus was banished from Dessau due to the rising power of the right wing parties. The Feininger family, who still lived in one of the Master’s Houses, had to leave Dessau too. The Bauhaus reopened in Berlin but closed shortly thereafter. The Feiningers later emigrated to USA.
Lyonel Feininger’s former house has been open for visitors since its reconstruction in 1994; it houses the Kurt-Weill Centre in Dessau. The building’s colouring is remarkable. The colourful stairwell and the spacious light atelier will impress every visitor.
„Gentlemen, we’re through with Weimaring, let’s go Dessauing!“
Lyonel Feininger, 1925
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Photos: Enric Boixadós