Painting of the Week / Thomas Abbs

Painting of the Week: 38

Lyonel-Feininger-The-White-Man

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), The White Man, 1907, oil on canvas, 68.3 x 52.3 cm, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on deposit at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.

Having previously worked as a caricaturist for a succession of satirical German magazines and periodicals, it was perhaps natural that Lyonel Feininger should gravitate towards literary and journalistic circles on his arrival in Paris in July 1906. Among the Parisian magazines for which he provided illustrations was the journal Le Témoin. One of these illustrations was a drawing, compositionally identical to the above painting, published as a cartoon in 1906 under the title ‘Les regrets de M.Hearst’ (Fig. 1).

The subject-matter of both caricature and painting has lent itself to a number of quite different interpretations – perhaps most of all, is the arbitrary quest to identify who the ‘white man’ exactly is.  The cartoon’s title ‘Les regrets de M.Hearst…’, together with the accompanying caption ‘In France with 1,300,000 francs I could be president of the Republic’, was undoubtedly the work of the journal’s editor, rather than the artist. To Feininger’s Parisian contemporaries, the tall man in the white suit with hat and pipe may well have suggested an American newspaper baron. That the image was not, on the other hand, intended as a portrait of William Randolph Hearst is beyond question; nor, indeed, is there anything to suggest the figure is American at all.

'Les regrets de M.Hearst'

Fig. 1 ‘Les regrets de M.Hearst’, cartoon from le Témoin, I (1906), no.6

Alois Schardt – who, by the way, believed the figure to be a travelling Englishman – gives a revealing analysis of the painting’s compositional aspect. As Schardt notes, one of the most striking things about The White Man is the discrepancy in scale between the treatment of the principal figure and the surrounding architecture:

The man is huge, bigger than the picture frame, he has to bend slightly as he walks, for he reaches out beyond the frame, beyond its limited space into infinity.

This was clearly a deliberate device, employed to a quite specific end. In a letter of 1906, Feininger wrote:

The slightest difference in relative proportions creates enormous differences with regard to the monumentality and intensity of the composition. Monumentality is not attained by making things larger – how childish! – but by contrasting large and small in the same composition. On the size of a postage stamp one can represent something gigantic, while yards of canvas may be used in a smallish way and squandered.

Lyonel Feininger Chicago Sunday Tribune

Fig. 2 ‘The-Kin-der-Kids’. Chicago Sunday Tribune, 29 April 1906, title-page to part 11

Feininger photographed on the beach at Graal

Feininger photographed on the beach at Graal (Rugen), 1905.

In contrast, Hans Hess, Feininger’s biographer, identified The White Man as representing the artist himself, whom he described as ‘a tall, angular, boyishly jerky man’: ‘There he stands, as high as the Tour St Jacques, hands in his pockets, an American in Paris.’ This claim isn’t implausible. If you take a look at the artist’s depiction of himself in the Chicago Sunday Tribune (29 April 1906) introducing the paper’s new comic supplement, you can trace the ‘white man’ with his spindly legs and enormous feet (Fig. 2). There’s also something about the pose of an old family snapshot taken in 1905 showing Feininger on the beach at Graal that calls to mind the figure in the 1907 painting (Fig. 3). Ulrich Luckhardt, a voice of reason and one of the most recent authors to write extensively about Feininger, believes that the image of the ‘white man’, though closely related to the artist’s caricatures, is itself without specific reference.

With all this interest in the provenance of the ‘white man’, few interpretations of the picture published devote much attention to the significance of the figure of the ‘black man’. Given the relative proportions between the two figures this is easily done. However, considering the time and setting (Freud and the early twentieth-century city), and if we see the painting as a self-portrait, the ‘black man’ could represent an alter ego, the saturnine side of the artist’s personality: scurrying along, distracting him, tripping him up, diverting the purposefully striding figure from attaining its true objective. Pesky springs to mind. ■

This painting can be found in our book Twentieth-century German Painting, in addition to many more German masterpieces from The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.

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