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  • Writer's pictureJuhani Silvola

The electrifying works of Lyonel Feininger

The way I like to approach art is to not know anything about it and just be hit by the raw impressions. Of course, this is mostly an unattainable ideal. With music, one can create incredibly large playlists, preferably populating them with other people's favourite music from various genres and eras, and playing these massive lists on random. This is probably one of my favourite methods of listening to new music, or rediscovering stuff I already know. Not knowing what comes next, not knowing the background of the artist or the concepts behind the music. I just have to respond to the pure sound. Also, the often extreme juxtapositions, say from Merzbow to Mozart, or Dolly Parton to Darkthrone, makes you hear each thing in a new, clearer light.

What has this to do with Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), a German-American Expressionist painter? I love to wander around museums and galleries, (preferably modern/contemporary or medieval/ancient ones) but anything is of interest really. Although I can’t quite do what I love to do with music, I prefer ideally to not know anything about what I’m seeing until after my initial response has been established. This is not always easy, since I’ve read art history, and anything hanging in (especially larger) museums is already quite well-known. But still.

Often, when one has seen many artworks, a sort of fatigue sets in; a physical one from walking/standing for a long time, and a mental one, where one's mind is numbed by endless, more or less interesting, stuff. One artist who always manages to jolt me out of this numbness is Lyonel Feininger. This has happened now many times in various museums; I suddenly stop in my tracks and think, «what is that?». It’s like the painting itself forces me to have a deeper look. This happened again recently at Hamburger Kunsthalle.

I haven’t really articulated to myself why I like these paintings. It just seems that they present a very clear and strong vision, one that I prefer over many, or most, other painters from the same era employing similar visual languages & techniques. Maybe I like them because Feininger was also a musician, and there is some shared resonance there? He said that music was the “language of my innermost soul which stirs me like no other form of expression.” I do find that these paintings share some of the immediateness of music. They are somewhere beyond language and concepts, not being «about» anything (although on the surface they are still figurative), but just «being», like new life-forms, or worlds with their own laws of physics.

The art I care about has to have this power to grab me by the neck before a linguistic/conceptual awareness kicks in. This force can be subtle, and is in no way related to anything spectacular (quite the contrary most of the time). To me, Feininger most definitely has that force. Do check out his paintings (preferably in real life, images on screens don’t quite do the same trick) and see what kind of effect they might have on you.

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