Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Lyonel: Cartoons and Fein Art 

by Rick Marschall

[1] “The White Man”

Bad pun. This is a story about Lyonel Feininger, the German artist born (and died) in America. The son of a prominent musician, Lyonel was born in 1871 and initially studied music himself. In 1887 he moved to Germany, land of his parents’ birth, and only returned to America about 50 years later. He died in New York City in 1956.

An early Cubist, and a founder of the Bauhaus, Feininger is a major name in 20th-century art. But he began his career – and had an extensive career – as a cartoonist and caricaturist. The two pursuits occupied almost exactly equal periods of his life, with a decade overlap in the ‘teens.

As a cartoonist, he drew book and magazine illustrations; humorous, social, and political cartoons; and comic strips. As a close relative of the genres, wooden comic figures he carved and painted were placed in front of his unique, distorted urban scenes and photographed – “The City At the End of the World.” Music and photography were also lifelong pursuits.

[2] Character sketches for Kin-Der-Kids

There have been books and museum exhibitions of Feininger’s works, but he remains generally more respected than familiar beyond a few famous works.

In my collection in the late 1980s I had much of his printed works, including cartoons in German and American magazines, and an original page, and color guide, of Wee Willie Winkie’s World, the fantasy strip he drew for the Chicago Tribune in 1907. (He also drew the amazing Kin-Der-Kids at the same time.) I also own – all this for a book I have yet to produce – the complete run of his Chicago Tribune pages, including the paper’s ads and promotion.

In service of that book I hoped to write, I discovered the location of his grandson. And made it a point to visit him – a nervous pilgrimage for me.

[3] “The Miller and His Wife.” 1907

Danilo Curti lived in a little corner of Italy I had never visited – Trento, capital of the autonomous province of Trentino-Alto Adige, on the Adige River in Südtirol, in the shadow of the Dolomites. The city is a prosperous small town, by feeling, its status of semi-independence the result of proximity to Austria. In fact, similar to Alsace on the German-French border, it has been a part of both Italy and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire through the years. And its streets, native dress, and cuisine display the best of both traditions. 

I secured an invitation from Danilo, and took several trains north, north, north to that mountainous old village. In the town itself I followed narrow, cobblestone streets, aware of old lampposts and wrought-iron signs and decorations on charming old buildings.

Danilo was a shy but gracious host. Lyonel Feininger had three sons, Andreas, a famous photographer; Theodor Lukas (T. Lux), a painter and musician; and the reclusive genius Laurence, father of Danilo. 

It was Laurence who developed a passion for musicology and music history, and became his generation’s foremost authority on music of the 13-17th centuries; especially church music and liturgies, an admirer of Johann Sebastian Bach and an expert on Josquin des Prez and contemporaries. He was the son who secreted himself to Trento, privately researching (and privately financing) his groundbreaking work.

[4] The Church in Gelmerode – a town, and a building, 
to which Lyonel Feininger returned through the years for inspiration.

It was while in Trentino, except for his forays to the Vatican Library, that Laurence became a priest. I am not sure whether before or after his ordination that Danilo arrived on the scene – things happen – but in any event Laurence’s priestly life was devoted to ancient music of the church.

Danilo had, as I had hoped, much of the family archive. Many drawings, clippings, tearsheets, magazines, books, artwork. We spent all afternoon poring over these amazing materials. As it grew late, a friend he invited to join us for dinner, I think a handy translator, called from a couple streets away – I still remember, “Dan-i-LO! Dan-i-LO!” We spent a wonderful meal and evening, the three of us, Danilo recalling family stories about his grandparents and uncles.

He knew little about cartoons… but was learning, and that was part of the reason he responded to my inquiries. Otherwise he was a musicologist like his father (I cannot recall if he went into the priesthood also) and has become a prominent historian.

[5] Political cartoon by Feininger, 1915 – British King Edward in Hell

There was so much much material, including things I would never find elsewhere, that Danilo agreed to arrange for a local photographer to shoot many things we tagged. He presented me with scholarly works of his own, and a couple music-history books by his father; and he loaned me a couple of items, including a rare, early book of fairy tales that Lyonel illustrated. When I returned to the States, I sent him some rare material I had.

Danilo’s scholarly growth has included a recent cartoon-history project, Pencil Strokes: The Great War in Caricature. The exhibition has toured Europe and the world.

With a monumental amount of work, by a monumental talent, having passed in front of me that day, it was difficult to fall asleep. Very conscious of being in (as I have called it) an obscure virtual corner at the top of the world, a fairy-tale vestige of earlier times, where the archives of an influential artist of our age emerged from boxes and trunks… the whole experience was, for me, not exactly rare, but I was grateful for another sweet moment in a Crowded Life in Comics.


1 comment:

  1. Really mind blowing work from an artist I was not aware of. Thank you for such a well written blog post, I felt I was with you in Italy while reading it.