Capturing a fleeting image of time and space, a memory, a sentiment of the past, is at the core of Lyonel Feininger’s creative process. He did not create art for purely aesthetic reasons, but rather because of an urge to bring his innermost memories to life. When Feininger moved back to New York in 1937 after almost 50 years in Germany, he found himself longing for the Baltic Sea, which he first fell in love with during a visit to the island of Rügen in 1892. His longing found an outlet in a series of watercolours and paintings depicting his beloved seaside, and in 1951 he wrote to his friend and fellow Bauhaus Master, Georg Muche: We often long for our old, months’ long vacations in Deep… But what good is longing for the past; at least we lived it happily and in peace and can think back on it! Reminiscence, for which I, like all of us, possess an unusual talent, is the most common source for the best in my work. The memory of our life in Germany represents more than half of my life, and nothing should destroy it for me’ (Letter from Lyonel Feininger to Georg Muche, New Haven, 27th August 1951, Bauhaus-Archive, Berlin (Translation from German by the author).
Desert Sea, 1945 is very much an expression of those joyous memories of summers on the Baltic Sea spent swimming, sailing, and fishing. The composition, with two small figures looking out towards the vast sky and sea, a tiny ship just visible on the horizon, is reminiscent of Feininger’s early cloud pictures of 1923. The bold lines and broad swaths of colour, however, mark Desert Sea as emblematic of the graphic style of Feininger’s late period in which it is line, and not colour, that structures the composition. The rich reds and ochers, rather than the tranquil blues typical of Feininger’s other seascapes, reference the striking rock formations of the California desert, which Feininger first saw in 1937.
Completed on February 9th, only two months before the end of World War II, Desert Sea is a reflection of both blissful and melancholy memories. Though Feininger managed to leave Germany, he worried about his friends who remained behind, and mourned the destruction of his adopted country. He realised that, even if he should return, his ‘beloved Baltic Sea’ would never be the same. The deep dark colours and almost violent black slashes of Desert Sea are in stark contrast to earlier brighter and more tranquil depictions of the motif. In the haziness of the exposed grey canvas one senses the passage of time and the fading of memories. There is a sense of melancholy as the two lonely figures cling to each other against the immense red sky, revealing ‘the ghastly, unearthly loneliness which now in my mind is associated with this stretch of coast’ (Letter from Lyonel Feininger to Bernard Frazier, director of the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, New York, January 4, 1947, copy at Moeller Fine Art Projects | The Lyonel Feininger Project, New York).
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