CAMBRIDGE — The relationship between photography and traditional visual art has been excitingly vexed almost since the former’s invention. “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” currently at the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C., is just the latest exhibition to look at the larger conceptual issues raised by the interplay between painting and photography.
A topic that’s received comparatively little attention has been that interplay within individual careers. Edward Steichen, who began as a painter, had serious qualms about abandoning brush for camera. Henri Cartier-Bresson studied under the Cubist painter Andre Lhote and in the final years of his life focused on drawing. In between came one of the supreme careers in photographic history. Ben Shahn, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and David Hockney all memorably qualify as painter-photographer hyphenates.
So does Lyonel Feininger. Best known for the exalted geometry of his paintings, he is the subject of “Lyonel Feininger: Photographs, 1928-1939.” It runs at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum through June 2.
Feininger (1871-1956) didn’t take a serious interest in photography until he was 57. He had a talent for late artistic arrival. He didn’t turn to painting and printmaking until his mid-30s. Born in New York, he moved to Berlin in his teens and flourished as a cartoonist and caricaturist. Walter Gropius made Feininger the first faculty hire at the Bauhaus, an indication of his status in German art circles.
It was two younger Feiningers, the painter’s sons, T. Lux and Andreas, who got him interested in photography. One would become a distinguished photographer and painter, the other a very distinguished photojournalist. It’s a charming instance of filial influence. Still, again and again their father’s photographs demonstrate the fascination with angularity and planes so evident in his painting. So what took him so long to pick up a camera?
The show consists of 53 photographs, two-dozen drawings and watercolors, and a painting. Also on display are two of Feininger’s cameras and several boxes for the glass-plate negative he originally used (he later switched to film). They lend the show an immediacy and personal flavor.
That’s fitting, because the photographs display such a strong sense of enthusiasm and discovery. We see Feininger playing with unusual angles, contrasts between light and dark, reflection, reversed images, and double exposure. He’s photographing train stations and churches and his studio and the Second Avenue El, in New York. Feininger even places a small dead fish on a drawing and photographs them together. Why not? It’s his drawing, after all.
Invention and emulation are wonderfully entwined. Feininger is working through multiple styles: Surrealism (photographs of Paris shop windows), Constructivism (odd cantings and perspectives), the occasional touch of Pictorialism (a rain-slickened Paris promenade). The shop windows recall Atget (could Feininger have known his work?). A marvelously dynamic shot of Lux Feininger jumping into the Baltic could slide right into a contemporary Martin Munkacsi magazine spread (Feininger certainly would have been aware of Munkacsi’s work). The El photo would make Alexander Rodchekno and Feininger’s Bauhaus colleague Laszlo Moholy-Nagy equally eager to board that train.
Images of the Bauhaus and environs open the show. Feininger took them at night. In a picture like “Black Ice and Fog on the Burgkuhnauer Allee, Dessau” or “Untitled (Night View of Trees and Streetlam, Burgkuhnauer Alle, Dessau),” both from 1928, light becomes substance, even more dense than it is lucent. The Bauhaus views are no less spectacular. We see this absolutely up-to-the-minute man-made object — the sine qua non of 1920s functionality and geometric order — swathed in a surrounding primeval darkness. Before our eyes, the Bauhaus as source of illumination becomes literal as well as figurative.
As its title suggests, the show’s emphasis lies with the photographs, and rightly so. There are a few prints and drawings interspersed with the photographs, but nearly all of the non-photographic art hangs in an adjoining gallery. This doubly makes sense. The visual connections between those works and the photographs aren’t so pronounced as to call out for immediate proximity. And, frankly, with the exception of the painting, “Gross Kromsdorf III,” the photos would visually overpower the rest of the art.
To see both how good and how extensive Feininger’s photography was, go to harvardart
graphs. The site offers access to some 18,000 negatives and slides in Harvard’’s Lyonel Feininger Archive.