Complicated international legal maneuverings and diplomatic deals and decades of dedicated effort have rescued a cache of 52 early 20th-century paintings by the renowned painter and printmaker Lyonel Feininger. After being hidden in a dusty attic of a false friend for almost 50 years, all but three of the paintings, all 52 together valued at more than $11 million, are at last on view at the Phillips Collection through Feb. 9.
The tales of art treasures lost in Europe during World War I are legendary, but this is one with a happy ending, and it is surely one of the largest collections of a painter's lost work to be regained.
The three paintings recovered but not included here are now in the state museums in East Berlin. A painting in the present exhibition, a city of buildings reduced to sunset hues and sharp angles, has been bought by the art museum in Lu beck, West Germany. Twenty-three of the other paintings have been sold, with prices going up to $750,000 each.
Feininger painted the pictures in Paris and Germany between 1907 and 1932 and many are examples of how the artist went from a successful illustrator and cartoonist to a sparse, hard-edged painter. They are diverse in style and color -- as though, said one observer, "he were a dropout from every school of painting."
Romanticism, Secession, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism -- Feininger selected what he needed from all but in the end rejected being crammed into any one style. Today, he is remembered not only as the graphics master of the Bauhaus, the influential art and architecture school that spread modern design across the 20th century, but for his New York paintings of severe lines and images.
The early paintings begin with realistic still lifes and wispy landscapes. The most intriguing are the ones in which Feininger, a tall figure with a top hat as tall as himself, stalks about, taking satirical views of people, places and events. In the later work, Feininger sees the world through a kaleidoscope as prisms and colors.
The story of the rescue of the paintings is full of turns and twists. But telephone interviews with the artist's son, the painter and writer T. Lux Feininger; his mother's coexecutor, CBS vice president Ralph F. Colin Jr.; and Joan Menken of Acquavella Galleries Inc., together with the informative catalogue, give this account.
Feininger was born in New York City in 1871 of a German father, a musician. At 16 he went to Germany to study music, but soon found he could support himself as an illustrator and cartoonist. In 1906-07 he drew the comic strips "Wee Willie Winkie" (not to be confused with "Winnie Winkle") and the "Kin-der-Kids" for the Chicago Sunday Tribune.
About that time, fed up with his Biedermeier, or middle-class, wife and life, he left his commercial work. With the encouragement and company of the woman who became his second wife, he went to Paris to learn to paint. He returned to Germany in 1908, exhibiting with the Cubists; then, in 1911, with Die Bru cke, a group of German Expressionist painters; and, in 1913, with Der Blaue Reiter, a group of painters organized by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky.
Lux Feininger said that though his father was an enemy alien, he had sat out World War I without any fear. Two of the elder Feininger's paintings, "Newspaper Readers" (1909) and "Newspaper Readers II" (1916), express his cynicism about the propaganda that filled the German newspapers of the war years.
But he loved Germany and despite urging from his three sons and his Jewish wife, he insisted on staying there as the Nazis took over.
In 1932, Lyonel Feininger was artist-in-residence at the Bauhaus in Dessau. When the school was closed by the government, a squad of storm troopers searched his house. The Feiningers packed up and moved to Berlin.
A young man called Hermann Klumpp, who had attached himself to Feininger as a quasi-apprentice and lived with the family, offered to store furniture and paintings the family couldn't fit into its smaller Berlin apartment. The Feiningers accepted.
In 1936, Lyonel Feininger taught summer school at Mills College in California, but insisted on returning to Berlin, despite his wife's entreaties. Lux Feininger packed his own paintings and left, unfortunately leaving behind priceless photographs he'd made of the Bauhaus.
Finally, after Feininger received a formal summons -- complete with swastika -- calling him to appear before the local party post, Feininger agreed to go and to teach at Mills again. Once again the helpful Klumpp was there to store the leftovers. Lux Feininger says to this day he doesn't know why his father didn't take it all with him. The elder painter did send to Klumpp for a later shipment, but he told his son, "He sent me nothing of what I had asked for."
After World War II, the Feiningers attempted to get the paintings back, only to be refused by Klumpp. The Feiningers, their son said, were led to believe that Klumpp's possession of the paintings put him in danger of the East German Communist government.
In the later years, the painter's wife Julia Feininger listed the paintings as "inaccessible " in a catalogue of his work. After Julia's death in 1970, (Lyonel died in 1956), her executors sued Klumpp in the East German courts and obtained an order to have the pictures turned over to the government's state museums for safekeeping.
The court decided against Klumpp, and it refused an appeal in 1976. But it was not until 1984, after the executors had brought suit in the United States against East Germany, that the paintings were extracted from the East German government.
Both Ralph Colin Jr. and Lux Feininger credit the State Department, especially former U.S. ambassador to East Germany Rozanne L. Ridgway, now assistant secretary of state for European affairs, for helping to persuade the East Germans to negotiate.
Colin said that at first the East Germans tried to get the Feiningers to buy the paintings back. After much negotiation, the parties agreed that three paintings would stay in East Berlin and the others would come to the United States. "We were happy to have some paintings stay in East Berlin because he worked there so long," Feininger said.
On March 12, 1984, the paintings were uncrated in New York.
And finally, art lovers have a chance to discover a Feininger they never knew.