Achim Moeller will include this painting in volume I of his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of paintings by Lyonel Feininger.
Rooted in the distinctive elongated style and humorous narrative of the drawings Feininger produced for popular European magazines such as Lustige Blätter in Germany and Le Témoin in France, Die Werbung (The Proposal) is one of the first of Feininger's celebrated 'grotesques'. The so-called 'grotesques' were the artist's first major series of oil paintings, works with which Feininger pictorially gave form to an entire world of his own imagination - his 'city at the end of the world' - filled with people and things all slightly exaggerated into a rich and highly expressive, strangely larger-than-life existence.
Painted in Paris in 1907, The Proposal is one of the earliest, if not indeed the very first, of this important and extraordinary series of paintings. Marking the turning point for Feininger away from simple caricature towards a new path as a pioneer of avant-garde painting, this painting is both a radical and groundbreaking work that signals the beginning of what would be Feininger's lifelong attempt to define an elegant new pictorial synthesis between the building blocks of the painter's art: line, form and colour.
Feininger's very first oil paintings were begun in the spring of 1907 and were initially a half-hearted attempt at the kind of Matisse-inspired Impressionism then being practiced by the artists he had met in Paris who were establishing a name for themselves as the D<->ome circle, taken from the name of the café where they met. These included the German artists Hans Purrmann, Jules Pascin, Wilhelm Uhde and Richard Götz. Although Feininger soon recognised the importance of Matisse and the Fauves' emancipation of colour, it did not take him long to recognise the impotence of such second-hand influence for his own uniquely different work. Soon afterwards, he abandoned his first attempts to emulate such Impressionistic colourism and embarked on a completely new, more radical, daring and risk-taking approach to painting that drew directly on and expanded his own considerable artistic experience as a professional cartoonist, caricaturist and graphic artist. Pursuing a unique vision of an art of formal synthesis that fused together line and flat abstract colour with the graphic style he had developed during his fifteen years experience working for magazines in America and Germany, and more recently with Le Témoin (The Witness) in Paris, Feininger set out to forge a new, more vital and expressive art.
His first paintings, in this new style, The White Man, Arcueil I, and The Proposal, all drew on the flat forms, elongated figures, and dynamic juxtaposition of scale that he had employed in the kind of single drawing sheets he had recently been producing for Le Témoin. Making use of this simple graphic structure, the flat planes of bold colour involved in the painting of such subjects subsequently came into their own, dominating the composition and generating a dramatic play of co-ordinated and near abstract blocks of form and colour to create a dazzling patterned surface to the picture. 'My vague ideal' with this bold new colourist approach, Feininger modestly recalled, 'was to approach to the style of certain crude signboards, just barely escaping the rankness as understood among real painters.' (Lyonel Feininger, 'Letter to Alfred Vance Churchill', March 13, 1913, quoted in E. Scheyer, Lyonel Feininger: Caricature and Fantasy, Detroit, 1964, p, 124) 'When I started my first painting back in 1907,' he later explained, 'I was but a caricaturist and my intentions regarding oil painting were vague. My only outlet seemed to be the poster. Or, to put it a bit more exactly, my ideal was to build up pictures formed of silhouetted objects. Like some of M.'s [my mother's] early paper cut-outs. And again, I had seen Schiessbuden (shooting gallery) figures, cut of sheet iron and painted in a simple array of more or less violent colours, with no modelling. This was in Paris, and after I had definitely given up my caricatures for the Chicago Tribune, and was at last working on my own. Light and shade and all the atmosphere you can impart to a painting will still not solve the ultimate problem of painting, which is based upon spatial interrelationships - and in modern painting, which in many ways is less 'modern' than 13th and 14th Century art, it is the disposition of the spatial structure which is important above all other elements of the picture, and this spatial structure must be logically reduced to the greatest possible simplicity of parts. Simple, large colour planes keyed together on the painting surface, is the aim; not photographically diversified modulation of colour. Clear forms, which carry the space element and the subject in all simplicity and directness' (Lyonel Feininger, quoted in T.Lux Feininger, City at the Edge of the World, London, 1965, p. 35.)
The Proposal and The White Man are the first of Feininger's works to successfully translate the graphic language of his cartoons and caricatures into the painterly medium of oil and to establish this dynamic but also delicate compositional balance through interplaying blocks of pure colour. In both cases these works make dramatic, almost humorous use of an extreme contrast in scale. 'The slightest difference in relative proportions creates enormous differences with regard to the monumentality and intensity of the composition' Feininger observed in a letter of 1906. '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' (quoted in exh. cat., Lyonel Feininger-Marsden Hartley, New York, 1944, p. 18)
In The White Man, by contrasting the giant thin figure of the man with the slightly shorter church tower in the sunset and the tiny little man visible between his legs. In The Proposal - an extremely rare interior scene for Feininger - a similar perspectival contrast in scale is employed as a means of intensifying the psychological drama of the scene. The evidently nervous young man stands isolated in the vast empty space of a blue carpet at the centre of a circular ring of a red heart-shaped pattern of flowers. There, he is seemingly overwhelmed by the imposing figure of a woman who stands with her back to the viewer. The humour and pathos of this whole interior scene is intensified by Feininger's bold use of abstract colour and form into a moment of psychological drama that borders on Expressionism. An almost comic modern-dress reversal of the classical theme of the Judgement of Paris, Feininger here combines his gifts for draughtsmanship, caricature and pictorial narrative with a new found sensibility towards the construction of a painting from solely abstract and chromatic form.
The Proposal is one of the approximately fifty so-called 'inaccessible' paintings that were left behind in Germany when the Feiningers fled the Third Reich in 1937. Entrusted to Hermann Klumpp, a young colleague, the paintings remained in East Germany until 1984 on account of political complications and repeated breakdowns in communication with Klumpp. The restitution of these paintings was a diplomatic triumph celebrated with the Exhibition Lyonel Feininger held at the Acquavella Galleries in New York in 1985 and later at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.