It is always a special treat to see the canvases of an important artist that have been kept from public view for a long time -- especially if they constitute a major portion of his early production and can provide valuable insights into the manner in which he evolved from student to promising painter, and finally to mature master. The exhibition of 49 early paintings by Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) at the Acquavella Galleries here is a good case in point. These works, dating from 1907 to 1932, were left behind with an acquaintance when Feininger fled Nazi Germany for America in 1937. After several unsuccessful attempts during the 1950s to retrieve them -- and the recent successful completion of 14 years of litigation in East German courts -- they have finally been recovered by the estate of the artist's widow.
The very earliest are mildly impressionistic landscapes and still lifes, representing a side of Feininger which few knew existed. And the pictures dating from 1908 to 1912 are so close to delightful fairy-tale illustrations in color and execution that the general perception of Feininger as a geometric formalist with German-Romantic overtones will have to be modified somewhat to include these pictorial high jinks of his earlier years.
The balance of the show consists of brightly colored canvases fusing Cubist devices with dramatically foreshortened figures and architectural elements, and a number of works that represent Feininger's first tentative steps toward the geometrically defined cityscapes, for which he is best known. All are extremely handsome, and several are utterly charming. My own favorite is ``Locomotive With the Big Wheel'' of 1910.
After its Nov. 20 closing at the Acquavella Galleries, 18 East 79th Street, the exhibition travels to the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., where it will be on view Dec. 14 through Feb. 9, 1986.