Columbia artist Christian Thee has raised Columbia’s visibility – internationally – by his empathetic gesture: a creation of art given to a man he still has not met. Elements in the work of art also were raised; the painting was done in relief.
The work is a replica of a highly-visible painting discovered a few years ago among the Nazi art loot. Fearful at the time he’d never get his painting back, David Toren, then an octogenarian Manhattan attorney, received the replica enthusiastically– by feeling it.
Toren is the rare legal owner of art looted by Nazis who has proof of his inheritor rights.
Among more than 1,400 works discovered in 2013 in what the international art media called a Nazi art trove, Germany
initially only allowed a few token paintings to be shown on the Internet. Of those, one happened to be “Two Riders on the Beach,” by German impressionist Max Liebermann, which (then) 88-year old Toren had last seen as a boy of 13, on the wall of his great uncle’s villa. Memories of that day still are vivid: it was the day the Gestapo came and took his father away.
Toren received Thee’s art-felt gesture as a welcome distraction from his law suit against Germany and Bavaria, and the plaintiff took the gift as a harbinger of hope – that the Liebermann will be returned.
As international news crews came to Toren’s Upper Eastside apartment to interview him, Thee’s work of art was filmed as part of the Toren story. The painting’s presence on that wall enabled Toren to keep the legal pressure on German officials.
After reading a New York daily newspaper’s coverage of Toren and the provenance of the Liebermann painting, Thee set out to replicate the Lieberman painting, confiscated from the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the Columbia artist, who lived and painted in New York for several decades, got to the end of the article and noted: ‘Unfortunately, even if Mr. Toren gets his painting back, he will not be able to see it. He lost his sight six years ago to shingles.”
“This gentleman might have been my neighbor!” Thee realized, as a surge of empathy welled up – and the thought surfaced: “What if Mr. Toren could feel his painting?”
Thee quickly went on-line to get a better look at “Three Riders on the Beach.” Ideas for building up art material to give the painting a tactile dimension fermented. Finally, after two disappointing tries, Thee completed the successful painting and, once dry enough to be packed, the replica was ready for delivery.
But winter weather made travel to New York prohibitive. “Next, Mr. Toren had guests coming from Israel, then a magazine crew from the German magazine der Spiegel was scheduled to interview him. One time he had a very bad cold,” Thee explained.
By the time weather and other conditions cleared for travel, a commitment to a commission job in Columbia prevented Thee from taking the painting to Toren in New York in person. The artist went to Plan B; a colleague went to New York in his stead and presented the painting.
“Germany still had him waiting for the original Liebermann. My painting reached him in a day,” said Thee.
That day, in a nod to art justice, Toren got in touch – literally – with a poignant reminder of his family’s history.
Before tearing away the bubble wrap and brown paper in which the painting was packed, Toren gave a Jewish blessing.
Seventy-five years later and able to feel the Lieberman replica, Toren has said in interviews getting the real painting back would provide a little justice. Having read this comment, Thee said: “I gave my creation for him the working title, ‘Riding Toward Justice.’
When Toren learned what Thee had called the painting, he clapped his hands and said, “That’s perfect. That will remain the painting’s name.”
As his trembling fingertips traced the human and equestrian figures Thee had layered on for the German native to touch, Toren said, “I am deeply moved.”
In April a prestigious international art catalog will showcase Thee’s unusual painting that hangs in a place of honor in the recipient’s Manhattan home.
Afternote: Mr. Toren eventually did get the Liebermann back. He now is suing Germany for return of the other art items taken from his family early in WWII.
Feature Photo of Christian at easel by Russell Jeffcoat