With its sharp, crystalline planes of gradated colour all intersecting and coalescing in order to build a spectacular and near-abstract pictorial structure of colour and light from the simple forms of a village church, Kirche über Stadt (Church over the Town) is an outstanding example of Lyonel Feininger’s magnificent ability to marry architectural form and deep, inner feeling.
Painted in 1927, not long after Feininger had moved to Dessau where he continued to live and occasionally teach among the faculty of the Bauhaus, the painting derives from an important moment in Feininger’s career. As Hans Hess has written of this auspicious time, ‘the year 1927 marked an important change in Feininger’s work … From his Cubist form he had reached a static picture form with space and light firmly organized. Creating a new pictorial reality… [but one that] had exhausted its creative possibilities exactly as the Cubist still-life form had exhausted the inventive power of Picasso. Feininger’s own inventions became for him a prison from which he had to break out’ (Lyonel Feininger, London, 1959, p. 112)
In his letters to his wife Julia at this time, still living back in Weimar, Feininger began to speak of his need for a liberation from the ‘purely static,’ that would give him a new conception of ‘pictorial form’ [Bildform] and also of how he had begun to see colour as the means by which he could achieve this. ‘Colours that once were only colourful now become sonorous again and subordinate themselves to the whole,’ Feininger wrote excitedly about his new work. ‘I have a picture on the easel now which really promises to arise from colour…[and] yesterday I understood the secret… planes and forms conceived as colour’ (Letters to Julia in September 1927, quoted in ibid., p. 112).
In Kirche über Stadt this liberation of the forms of the church and the rooftops of the town below through a sensual and intuitive use of free-form, abstract colour now provides the formerly static Cubist-type structure of the painting with a new, formless sense of fluidity, freedom and potential. Here, crystalline planes of colour have started to take on a life of their own, combining together to create a semi-abstract pictorial fugue of abstract form and colour: one that speaks not just of a dynamic pictorial harmony but also of a spiritual dimension of feeling underpinning Feininger’s elegant constructions.
In the midst of a burgeoning political storm growing all around him in Dessau where the local Fascists were continually agitating against the presence of the Bauhaus, Feininger was increasingly turning inwards, quietly building on his past success to create an ever-richer and deeper form of pictorial expression. As he wrote to Julia around the time he was working on Kirche über Stadt: ‘It is unbelievable to what extent the party opposed to the Bauhaus has gone in its blind hatred, no doubt against the interests of the town. I trust though, that emotions will calm down... One may ask how much is really left nowadays to depend upon. It seems as if all the people in the world were equally crazy… Apart from the aforementioned, I’m very interested in my pictures. Resolutely I am obliterating and building up anew, and I should say that without the succession of alternating efforts, my painting would remain timid and unsatisfactory. So far the result has been on the positive side. For too long I haven’t wrestled with my work. I hate half measures. Too readily at times one loves the process of development. Growth has to suffer many transformations before life is breathed or beaten into it…’ (Letter to Julia, November 27, 1927, in J. L. Ness, ed. Lyonel Feininger, New York, 1974, pp. 159-60).