Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Father and son at the Bauhaus

Everyone reading this page has probably sat on a chair, drunk from a cup, or looked at a building whose design owes something to the Bauhaus. But the Bauhaus was more to its students than a school of architecture flourishing in Germany between the wars and spreading its influence far and wide. Here artist T. Lux Feininger shares with The Home Forum what it was like to be there as the son of an artist and founder who set an example as a parent, too.

Not long ago I was watching with my family a program of Bauhaus films at the Harvard Science Center when I was startled by a well-meaning public relations person calling attention to my presence in the audience on the insufficient (and erroneous) plea that I was ''the oldest surviving Bauhaus student.''

About these ads

There had been a time when I was conspicuous as ''the youngest student'' in the second class assembled in the then new building in Dessau. And prior to that , seven years earlier, I had been the youngest guest at Walter Gropius's New Year's Party in Weimar in 1919.

My presence at the party as well as in the Vorkurs (introductory course) of 1926 was of course due to my father's being one of the founding members of the original Bauhaus. It is not equally certain whether I can lay the responsibility of my having become a painter on him. In tolerating my first youthful attempts at painting he was bending the rules almost as much as had been necessary to get me enrolled at the age of 161/2. The Bauhaus did not turn out painters; that was not its function; no efforts had been spared to try to convince its students that they ought not to want to paint - but nothing had ever availed.

My own first concern with imagery had been photography; I had been taking and producing pictures independently since my mid-teens, despite limited funds. In Josef Albers's Vorkurs, every student who had produced a somewhat remarkable construction came to me to have it photographed. There were very few photographers at the Bauhaus - photography was not taught as an integral part of the curriculum until 1929 - and even fewer of them had much of an interest in portraying the daily life around the school. This, however, was just what fascinated me the most: the colorful people against the marvelous backdrop of the clean-edged architecture with its brilliant white, the exciting shadows cast by its many balconies, the splendid reflecting glass surfaces.

When I became a member of Oskar Schlemmer's stage class I not only found a rich new field for my camera but was able, in collaboration with my revered master, to produce records of Schlemmer's work that were useful on a greatly extended level, because of the interest the Bauhaus and its products aroused nationally and internationally. From here on my photography ceased to be an extracurricular hobby; it had become part of the scene.

And another pursuit of mine of those times appears to me today in a similar light: my playing in the Bauhaus dance band. The band could have gotten by without me, but my passionate love of jazz would not let me rest until I had fought my way into this small and constantly changing ensemble; on the other hand, the school would not have been what it was without its orchestra. Life at the Bauhaus would be unthinkable without music for its many feasts - some impromptu, but others elaborate and beautifully staged pageants. Playing in the band was thus very much of an ''inside activity'' and, in satisfying my craving, I was serving the community.

These three preoccupations - photography, stage work, and the band - filled my days (and to a good extent my nights also) until that fateful day in the summer of 1929 when I painted my first picture. My friend, the painter Clemens Roseler, was the only person in my confidence at this beginning; when my father returned from his vacation at the seaside, I was able to show him I forget how many canvases.

I did not observe any signs of disapproval in him. Had I perhaps feared any such manifestation? This question has acquired more interest since I became a parent myself. How to guide, support, or favor a choice of a vocation, or whether to refrain altogether from influencing one's children for fear of interfering - these are problems for parents of our own day.

About these ads

It must remain conjectural how my father felt at the prospect of his son setting out on this difficult path; one small memory may shed a little light on it. While we were still in Weimar (I may have been some 15 years old) my father introduced me to the master of the ceramics workshop, J.Hartwig. I was to be allowed to work in the pottery and perhaps even to learn to cast in plaster.

''And will you be looking in occasionally for the artistic part?'' Mr. Hartwig asked. But my father waved this aside. ''Oh, I give him every kind of freedom,'' was the answer.

These words had struck me. Not only were they true, but they made me aware for the first time in my life that an ''artistic'' quality in what I had previously regarded as mere tinkering and doodling meant that I had a responsibility toward myself through my works.

Before long, painting had become part of my daily life. I kept at my other interests as well, but when Oskar Schlemmer left the Bauhaus in late 1929 the development of the Bauhaus theater without his leadership soon failed to hold my interest and I withdrew from it.

New directions had come in at the school under its second head, Hannes Meyer. The same tendency that made me leave the stage workshop caused its followers to reject my painting as absurd and not defensible, because it was ''socially meaningless.''

I fared better in the outside world in my early public appearances as the painter ''Theodore Lux.'' I had adopted this signature in order to avoid as much as possible any biased judgment of my work. It is likely that the incognito was not absolutely tight and that I owed some undeservedly kindly treatment, as well as perhaps an extra cuff or so, to my being Lyonel Feininger's son.

I have learned very, very much from him, exactly because he ''allowed me every kind of freedom.'' He never obtruded a view, did not interfere; I recall best his occasional plea to remember what painting was about: the artist's responsibility to discover ''his form,'' and not to get lost in anecdotal preoccupation with subject matter or ''photographic shading'' of surface values.

His critique is altogether in keeping with the Bauhaus idea of integration. The totality of fashioning postulated by this program comprises the artisan as well as his artifact; philosophically speaking, a picture is no different from a tubular steel chair. This is basic teaching. On the other hand, the label of social usefulness attached to one product, but refused to another, remains a variable (and is therefore not binding) to one who, like me, insists that, if I can't exist without society, society cannot exist without me - that, to the extent to which it can be understood, I am society.

While at the Bauhaus I learned to explore my own potential in a variety of ways (stage work, photography, dance band, and, last, painting), and they gave me opportunities for recognizing the signs of the meaning that these pursuits might have for my further development. If the Bauhaus had no room for me as a painter, there was room enough in the world for me, and we parted company at the right time.

This was in 1932, and for the next 18 years I explored the world around me in both hemispheres. At the end of that phase I became a teacher, and at once the Bauhaus training came to the fore when there was a real need for it. I found that I could qualify as an art educator. For the next 25 years (until my retirement in 1975) I paid my debt to society in my own chosen way.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.