Lyonel Feininger is one of those artists whose names evoke one kind of painting, and one only. Translucent planes carving up space like glass knives, suggesting churches, ice caves or winter seas--in Feininger, the symbolism of the German romantics, especially of Caspar David Friedrich, is passed through an illustrative language based on cubism. It is legible cubism, shorn of its ambiguities. Under the modern surface, there is always a hint of the sublime, the transcendental, perilously near to kitsch--Crystal Cathedral uplift, the fount of much hotel-lobby art and many a "serious" get-well card.
In the last years of his life, Feininger (1871-1956) was about as popular as any modern artist in America could then be; and despite his German name, his years of teaching at the Bauhaus and his flight from Nazi Germany, he was American, having been born in New York City and emigrated to Europe in 1887. He longed to be a musician, supported himself by drawing caricatures and illustrations and did not start painting until he was 36. Naturally, Feininger did not begin with the style he is known for. But until lately, little was known of his early efforts. Most of them remained in East Germany.
It took decades to get them back. When the Nazis branded Feininger a "degenerate artist" in 1937, he left 54 paintings for safekeeping with a Bauhaus friend named Hermann Klumpp. After the war, and for the rest of Feininger's life, the perfidious Klumpp refused to give them back, on the casuistic ground that although Feininger had "intellectual ownership" of the paintings, he, Klumpp, was their "actual physical owner." Moreover, they were in East Germany, whose Communist government refused to surrender them to America. Their ownership had passed to Feininger's wife Julia on his death, and after she died in 1970 an executor of the Feininger estate, Art Lawyer Ralph F. Colin, went into high gear. It took him 14 more years of negotiation, a lawsuit against Klumpp and another against the government of East Germany to winkle out the missing paintings and get them to New York City. They were first exhibited at the Acquavella Galleries in Manhattan last fall. Now they can be seen (through Feb. 9) at the Phillips Collection in Washington.
To become a painter at all, Feininger had to disintoxicate himself of cartooning. It was not easy. Curiously enough, his first serious attempts, done as a student in Paris in 1907, were among the most painterly he would do for years: in Steeple Behind Trees, 1907, the caricaturist's facility of line is replaced by a splendid density of paint and assurance of marking. His way of cutting in rectangular dabs of color with a square-tipped brush seems to predict the shardlike planes of his mature work.