The spectacular Der rote Geiger (The Red Fiddler) is one of his final, seminal oils and definitively the most self-referential composition of Feininger's career. Feininger's idea for this 1934 painting originated from a nearly identical gouache and two closely related drawings that he completed over two decades earlier, at the height of his involvement with the German Expressionist groups Brücke and Blaue Reiter. Over the intervening years his professional accomplishments multiplied, as did his exposure at the Bauhaus to new and challenging artistic trends. His return to the subject of the fiddler after two decades is not surprising: Feininger was the son of a concert violinist and was particularly adept himself at playing the instrument. But the fact that he chose to resurrect his alter-ego, just as his art was coming under siege by the Nazis, is a powerful display of his artistic vigor. Painted in Germany on the brink of the defining crisis of the 20th century, Der rote Geiger goes well beyond depicting Feininger's passion for another art form. The crimson-frocked fiddler performs against an architectural backdrop emblazoned in gold and ochre, just as the Emperor Nero is fabled to have done during the burning of Rome. This painting marks the first appearance in Feininger's painting of the fiddler, a character that has since become symbolic of defiance in the face of crushing opposition.
The career that led up to Feininger's completion of this picture, at the age of 63, are was truly impressive. Following his success with the German Expressionists, Feininger was appointed by Walter Gropius as the head of printmaking at the Bauhaus upon the school's inception in 1919. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1926, Gropius permitted Feininger the privileged status of an artist-in-residence, excusing him of any teaching responsibilities so that he could concentrate on his painting. A year prior to that, Feininger had formed the highly influential artistic group known as the Blue Four, along with Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Klee. It was around this time that the artist began spending his summer vacation along the Baltic in the village of Deep, where he passed his days building model boats with his three sons. During the summer of 1934 Feininger painted the present work, which was the only oil that he ever completed outside of his studio.
Der rote Geiger is a composite of images from his past and the spindly figure of the fiddler, who makes his grand debut in this oil. Feininger's composition calls to mind some of the early paintings by Marc Chagall, in which the fiddler also played a prominent role in the artist's painterly reminiscence of his hometown in Vitebsk. Here, though, Feininger's fiddler strikes a highly stylized pose against a backdrop of urban European apartment buildings, with his bow positioned dramatically against the instrument. Alongside him are a prostitute luring her bespectacled client and a dark figure with a cane, all shadowy figures who recede into the architecture. Because Feininger began his career as a draftsman, there is a distinct influence of caricature in many of his paintings. His figural compositions are often populated by many of the same characters that featured in his published drawings, including Jesuits, city workers, lonely children and prostitutes. But in these grander oil compositions, Feininger groups all of these characters together, creating a dynamic ensemble for the sake of the pictorial narrative. As Luckhardt notes, "His red coat differentiates him from his surroundings; like a brilliant cut-out he stands in the composition, unrelated to the background – the rows of Parisian houses with their windows, the three figures. Neither the red of his coat nor the clear blue of the violin he places have any counterpart elsewhere in the painting. Isolation could not be more clearly shown – the loneliness of the creative individual who persists in giving unmistakable expression to his existence, even when no one in the vicinity is taking any notice. The Red Fiddler is Feininger's plea in the battle for the freedom he had long since lost; it stands as an image of the person of the artist" (Ulrich Luckhardt, op. cit., p. 144).
Through the pictorial devices of perspective and figural distortions, as well as eccentricities of color, the artist transforms the scene into a world where the strange and the familiar are inextricably linked. In his monograph about the artist, Hans Hess explores Feininger's artistic process, "Feininger had no theory of painting; he had that sense for contemporary reality that makes a painter an artist of his time. His thought was as much involved in his work as were his eyes. He was trying to obtain clarity, and he analyzed his own work, but he was not working in accordance with a theory, either his own or borrowed. The laws he obeyed were the laws of the picture as it revealed its structure, the laws of nature as he transposed them into his art. He did not impose a law of his invention; he transposed the laws that he observed. He revealed patterns; he did not invent them" (Hans Hess, op.cit., p. 68).
Feininger renders the surrounding environs with a network of overlapping geometric shapes that vary in degrees of opacity: solid earth-tones for the architecture and transparent shades of green, brown and gold for the sky. The aesthetic is similar to that of the Cubists but the effect here is much more legible; the edifices are abstracted but without compromising the solidity of their structure. Feininger repeats this interlacing of geometric forms in the sky, but uses transparent colors that dissolve the shapes into air. This technique, which the artist called "dual sky," heightens the dimensionality of the negative space while maintaining the ethereal quality of the sky. At the tops of the roofs he uses sharp, intersecting lines, indicative of his skills as a graphic artist, which aid in uniting the architecture with its surrounding space. The harmonious interplay of solids and voids in this picture can indeed be likened to the terse elegance and refinement of a Baroque prelude or fugue; for it was Feininger himself to once wrote, "Bach's spirit is contained in my painting also, and finds its expression there in a different form."
Oil on canvas
Oakland, Mills College Art Gallery; San Francisco; Santa Barbara; Los Angeles Art Association; Seattle & Portland, 2nd Feininger Exhibition. 35 New Paintings, 130 Drawings and Prints by Lyonel Feininger, 1937, no. 4
39 3/8 by 31 7/8 in. 100 by 81 cm
T. Lux Feininger, "Feininger Lyonel and Lux: Two Painters," Chrysalis, vol. 9, no. 9-10, Boston, 1956, illustrated in on the cover
Hans Hess, Lyonel Feininger, New York, 1961, no. 359, illustrated in color p. 133
Klaus Gallwitz, ed., Exposition 73: Ausstellungen in Deutschland, Dortmund, 1973, illustrated in color p.123
Roland März, Lyonel Feininger, Welt der Kunst, Berlin, 1981, illustrated in color p. 22
Ulrich Luckhardt, Lyonel Feininger, Munich, 1989, no. 48, illustrated in color p. 145
Dieter Forte, Das Muster, Frankfurt am Main, 1992, illustrated in color on the cover
Felicitas Tobien, Lyonel Feininger, Kirchdorf/Inn, 1995, illustrated in color p. 93
Roland März, ed., Lyonel Feininger. Von Gelmeroda nach Manhattan: Retrospektive der Gemälde (exhibition catalogue), Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1998, illustrated in color p.336
Hans Schulz-Vanselow, Lyonel Feininger und Pommern, Kiel, 1999, no. 132, illustrated in color p.256
T. Lux Feininger (a gift of the artist)
Acquired by descent from the above