In the aftermath of the First World War, artists in Germany attempted to rebuild the cultural life of the republic, hoping to reignite the creativity that had flourished at the beginning of the decade. Painters, writers and architects from all over the country formed organisations, such as the 'Novembergruppe' and the 'Arbeitstrat für Kunst' both based in Berlin, that promoted specific social and cultural agendas. Among the members of both of these groups was Lyonel Feininger, whose successful one-man exhibition in 1917 at the Galerie Der Sturm had established his reputation as an artist of important cultural standing in Germany. But Feininger was wary of ideological groups and largely worked on his own, never compromising his commitment to individual artistic expression. 'Not for nothing did I become a painter, the ultimate means of expressing myself,' he wrote around the time he painted the present work. '[A]nd I must admit I am a painter who torments himself unreasonably, a man who fails a hundred times. In the quiet of my studio I wage despairing battles; daily I arise to new struggles, inspired by hope, only to despair again in the evening... Now only the vale is left to me, only willpower; perhaps I have not a single one of the gifts of the modern 'painterly,' 'amusing' creative artist... The church, the mill, the bridge, the house - and the graveyard - have all inspired me with deep feeling since childhood. They are all symbolic. But it is only since the war that I have realized why I feel this compulsion to keep representing them in pictures' (quoted in Ulrich Luckhardt, Lyonel Feininger, Munich, 1989, pp. 35-36).
In Mühle mit rotem Mann the central element around which the whole composition forms is the lone striding man. This feature figured in the artist's most important works, such as Strasse in Paris and Karneval in Arceuil (figs. 1 & 2). The landscape seems to rise up about the striding, mustachioed man enhancing the energetic atmosphere. Feininger renders the surrounding environs with a network of overlapping geometric shapes that vary in degrees of opacity: aquamarine, grey, cobalt blue and rose for the sky and deeper shades of blue and smoky pink for the form of the windmill. The aesthetic is similar to that of the Cubists but the effect here is much more legible; the edifice is abstracted but without compromising the solidity of its structure. Feininger repeats this interlacing of geometric forms in the sky, but uses transparent colours 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 once wrote, 'Bach's spirit is contained in my painting also, and finds its expression there in a different form'.
Through the pictorial devices of perspective and figural distortions, as well as eccentricities of colour, the artist transforms the scene into a world where the strange and the familiar are inextricably linked (figs. 1 & 2). 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 analysed 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, Lyonel Feininger, London, 1961, p. 68).
Concerning his pictures from this era, Feininger wrote: 'Each individual work serves as an expression of our most personal state of mind at that particular moment and of the inescapable, imperative need for release by means of an appropriate act of creation: in the rhythm, form and colour and mood of a picture' (quoted in Wolf-Dieter Dube, Expressionism, New York, 1973, p. 172).
Fig. 1, Lyonel Feininger, Strasse in Paris, 1909, oil on canvas, University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City
Fig. 2, Lyonel Feininger, Karneval in Arceuil, 1911, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Oil on canvas
New York, Acquavella Galleries & Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Exhibition Lyonel Feininger, 1985-86, no. 43, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art & Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, 2010-11, no. 87, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
48.6 by 40.6cm. 19 1/8 by 16in.
Deposited by the artist for safekeeping with Herman Klumpp, Quedlinburg (circa 1934)
Julia Feininger, New York (the artist's wife, inherited from the artist in 1956)
Estate of Julia Feininger (1970)
For safekeeping with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1974-1984)
Recovered by the executors of the estate of Julia Feininger in 1984
Thence by descent to the present owners