Painted in 1916, Newspaper Readers II is a unique masterpiece of Feininger's art that stands at a crossroads of his artistic development. Looking both back and forwards at the major creations of his of career, this impressive painting is a miraculous blend of both Feininger's celebrated 'grotesques' and the semi-abstract 'crystalline form' of his later architectural masterpieces.
An infectiously happy work, the vibrant colours of the painting, its joyousness, lightness of form and overt optimism all belie the fact that Newspaper Readers II was in fact painted during a period of great uncertainty and difficulty for Feininger. Belonging to what Feininger himself called his first " mature paintings", the painting was made during the height of the First World War. Feininger, as an American citizen living in the German Reich, grew increasingly lonely as the likelihood of the United States entering the war grew and his conflict of conscience about owing allegiance to neither side intensified. As Feininger's son, T.Lux Feininger has recalled, at this time the artist's studio "became more of a refuge than ever." (T.Lux Feininger, City at the Edge of the World, London, 1965, p. 34).
Feininger's unaligned position during this period of crisis in Europe, led to him concentrating even more on his art. As his son has explained, Feininger's attitude during the war years was one of quiet defiance, burying himself in his work the artist attempted to challenge the darkness of the times by creating works of a light and serene beauty. "Just as he was never able to reconcile for any length of time his need for privacy with his dread of loneliness," T. Lux Feininger writes, "so it was with the need for communicating and the fear of giving himself away. There was much to say - the word was full of riches - joy was a possibility, it existed - but there was also another power. It was of a dark nature, not to be denied; it followed one like a friend, but, if resisted, it was ready to turn against one, like an enemy. It might wear the aspect of the long-familiar, and again it might take the shape of an unexpected confrontation. Its essence was fantasy, but danger threatened when it assumed reality. The proper form for exorcising it seemed to be the grotesque." (Ibid. p. 34).
In this light, Feininger's decision to return to one of his celebrated "grotesque" paintings of 1908 in painting Newspaper Readers II is all the more poignant. "You must have noticed some viciousness in my work" Feininger wrote to the Expressionist poet and philosopher Knoblauch around this time, "I always let myself go on some scurrilous composition after having painted a serenely felt picture...sarcasm is a prickly, protective armour for artists who feel very deeply." (op. cit. p. 74). While Newspaper Readers II is no biting work of political satire, it is nevertheless a work rooted in turbulence of its time. Feininger's first version Newspaper Readers (Fig.) was a pen and ink watercolour of 1908 in which Feininger had referred directly to one of the political scandals of the day - a lawsuit brought against the writer Maximilian Harden by two confidants of the Kaiser, Eulenburg and Moltke, whose homosexual leanings Harden had revealed in the magazine Zukunft. This watercolour was used as the basis of an important but now lost oil painting of 1908, Newspaper Readers I.(Fig.) In this earlier version, painted with the heavy flat impasto that characterised Feininger's first oils, the architecture begins to gain a new prominence. More overtly painterly, Feininger was here evidently more interested in establishing a relatively simple compositional balance of form and colour. All reference to the Harden case has been removed from this work and the sheets of the newspapers remain blank. It is the avid interest of the readers as they rush hurriedly through the streets of Feininger's imaginary "city at the end of the world" in a diagonal motion across the canvas that interests Feininger here, not the subject about which they reading. The same is true of this second oil version of the subject painted eight years later, but here the formal sophistication that has developed in Feininger's art in the interim, is very much to the fore. Using the same composition, in Newspaper Readers II Feininger here demonstrates both his understanding and mastery of Cubist and Futurist form to create a far more complex and dynamic work. Whereas in the 1908 version of the painting the forms were rendered in a heavy, laborious impasto in such a way that the toy-like figures of the painting seemed rooted to the spot, in Newspaper Readers II, the entire composition is swept up in a cohesive atmosphere of lightness and motion. The sensational news about which these people are so keenly reading seems to sweep like a wind through the composition articulated by Feininger's masterful use of the curve.
The brilliance of Feininger's ability to effect a cohesive composition from this prism-like distortion of form reflects the artist's new-found mastery of Cubist form which he had developed in his repeated studies of the churches in the villages around Weimar. Having become acquainted with the latest developments of Cubism and Futurism from his visits to Paris in 1912 and through the groundbreaking Der Sturm Gallery exhibitions of 1912 and 1913, Feininger had absorbed their principles and by 1916 finally resolved them into a unique style of his own. This new way of working was a sharp, crystallised and serene form of Cubism in which the formal properties of painting and the building of a cohesive and harmonious composition were actively demonstrated by the work itself. The proportion, size and colour-balance of each of the elements of Feininger's new crystalline compositions became crucial to the effectiveness of the work as a whole. Learning from his love of architecture, by 1916 Feininger had recognised that he had finally arrived at a wholly new and important way of working. Newspaper Readers II is a work that celebrates this new-found mastery by reinventing and finally resolving the formal elements of an earlier painting. In the summer of 1916 Feininger wrote excitedly to his wife Julia of his realisation that after many years of struggle his diligence to his work had finally come to fruition. "After this long introduction let me open the floodgates of my gratitude and tell you that I have been working, delighted and happy, as I have not done, or barely done, for the past four or five years. Light, space, format, the motif, the canvas, in short, everything fills me with happiness. You'll see, after a period of tormented struggling and inhibitions that prevented me from doing good work, I shall dive right into a new and fruitful period. A burden has fallen from me, my mind is clear, and painting is a great, immense delight! I promise myself that my career, my future, are just beginning. In a few weeks I'll have a stock of new pictures that I can exhibit everywhere with confidence. I'm also thinking of major exhibition in New York after the war; I would certainly need new large pictures for that, and now I'll have them." (cited in Ulrich Luckhardt, Lyonel Feininger, Munich, 1989, p. 34).
What is remarkable about Newspaper Readers II is that the formal mastery that Feininger had now realised is put to use in this painting to create a composition in which the subject-matter of the work is actually reflected in the formal characteristics of the painting itself. Whereas Feininger's crystalline Cubism had been developed through a painstaking study of largely inanimate subjects such as the church at Gelmeroda, here, an animated use of the same formal technique is applied to the physical and mental activity of a group of people avidly reading the latest news. The composition is lent a dynamic sense of movement similar to that sought by the Italian Futurists, but, unlike their work, without resorting to predominantly abstract lines of force. The swooping curved lines of the painting embrace all aspects of the work incorporating both figures and architecture into a constant fluttering of form that stylistically echoes the seemingly floating newspapers which, united by their same pale yellow colouring, articulate a clear rhythm through the heart of the composition.
Painted at the height of the First Word War when hunger for news was at its most acute, the subject matter of this painting is one that would have been deemed as both timely and reflective of Germany during this turbulent period. The predominantly happy, if not indeed jovial atmosphere of the work in contrast to the traumatic times in which it was produced may have seemed puzzling, if not indeed deeply ironic to a contemporary audience. Such a glaring contrast was no doubt, intentional as well as being reflective of Feininger's aim of brightening the world through the power of his art. Feininger's personal position in Germany, his sense of being alone, not merely as an artist, but also as a foreigner, unaffiliated to either side in the midst of the greatest conflict mankind had ever known, almost certainly informed this painting. The objectivity which Feininger brought to his 'serene' Cubistic visions of architecture is here reflected in what he later described to Alfred Barr as a terrifying "aloofness in the work of those dreadful years" that seems to posit the possibility of an entirely different world. Indeed, in 1915 Feininger had written to his friend Alfred Kubin, that he now attempted to express "the world, which is furthest removed from the real world!!" (Letter cited in Hess, op.cit, p. 76.)
One of Feininger's finest paintings from these years Newspaper Readers II is therefore both a dramatic example of the artist's supreme mastery and an important pictorial document of the period. It is one of a number of demonstrably great paintings that, after ten years of working as an artist, finally gave Feininger the confidence to seek to make his name as one of the most forward thinking artists of his age. Previously always reluctant to assert himself in the international arena and bolstered by the close support of Herwarth Walden, Feininger now felt, in 1916, that his most recent body of work demanded the recognition he had always sought. By September 1917, the time of his first one-man-show at the Galerie der Sturm, he knew he was ready. His paintings of the last two years had given him a new-found confidence and although he recognised that the increasingly traumatic period for Germany was not conducive to his achieving a financial success at this important exhibition of his work, he believed, as he told his wife Julia, that his career had arrived at a "turning point" ("unsere Welt-wende"). Writing to Julia on the 15 September 1917, Feininger encouraged her with the words, "Do not lose heart at what you describe as our social decline. There's good reason to expect exactly the opposite...if there has been little recognition or success so far, the fault lay in my hesitation and reserve, but I have laid a firm foundation, firm as a rock, in the ten years I've worked. Even if the exhibition in September is not a great financial success, which can hardly be expected in these terrible times, our social situation will change totally and immediately...Once our circumstances have improved, part of the burden will surely fall...But I always see life as a constant longing for what can never be fulfilled." (letter cited in U. Luckhardt, Lyonel Feininger, Munich, 1989, p. 35).