February 07, 2000 12:00 PM

In 1937, Johannes Matthaeus Koelz was a rising painter in Germany. But when he refused an SS general’s request to paint Nazi leader Adolf Hitler—who, he later wrote in a journal, appealed to “a crowd of adolescent hooligans and nitwits”—the party ordered the arrest of the 42-year-old Bavarian native. Luckily, the police officer charged with taking him into custody recognized Koelz as the ex-captain who had pulled him, severely wounded, from a tangle of bodies on a French battlefield during World War I. He gave the artist 48 hours to flee the country.

But first, Koelz had to decide what to do with his 8-ft.-by-24-ft. painting Thou Shalt Not Kill—a three-paneled antiwar statement depicting crucified French and German WWI soldiers and mourning countrymen—that he had toiled on for some 15 years and considered his finest work. The painting was too large to smuggle out of the country but doomed to be destroyed by the government if left behind. So hours before fleeing, Koelz took the triptych to a sawmill, had the canvas cut into about 20 pieces and gave them to a relative, who divided them among family and friends. The artist kept for himself only a single 14-in.-by-19-in. patch depicting elderly townsfolk. The next day, with wife Claire, then 47, a homemaker, and their children, Siegfried, 14, and Ava, 1, he began a secret journey—a two-day hike to Austria under cover of night, followed by a train ride to Prague, where they stayed for a year, and a brief respite in The Netherlands—finally reaching England in 1939.

Koelz died in his adopted homeland in 1971, never having achieved fame as an artist. In fact it was only while sifting through her father’s letters and journals that daughter Ava Koelz (now Farrington) learned how much her father’s destroyed masterpiece meant to him. “I got desperately unhappy,” says Farrington, 63, who has spent nearly three decades tracking down the pieces—placing an ad in a German newspaper, traveling to her father’s homeland eight times since 1986 and writing 2,500 letters to archivists, distant relatives and family friends. So far the retired schoolteacher has located six pieces of the painting, including her father’s, which will serve as the centerpiece of the first-ever Koelz exhibition, in 2001 at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, England. “His career was only to come, and it was halted by the Third Reich,” says Dr. Shulamith Behr, a professor at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. The triptych “is a historical document, an immense statement of human condition.” For Farrington the show is long overdue. “I would very dearly like to see him given a position in the art world,” she says. “I am determined to put my father on the map.”

Obscurity was her father’s more likely fate. In 1940, after arriving in Britain, he was sent for a year to an internment camp for Germans in Australia. “He came here as an immigrant, hoping to be protected from the things he’d escaped from, and he was put through hell,” says Farrington, who has a steel kneecap as a result of being pelted with rocks one morning by anti-German schoolmates. Returning to England, Koelz worked odd jobs to support his family—clerking, tutoring local kids—but, says Farrington, “he wasn’t interested in anything” besides painting. By the time he succumbed at age 76 to throat cancer (his wife had died 14 years earlier of heart failure), he was deeply embittered and urged his daughter away from any artistic pursuits.

Instead, Farrington pursued her father’s past, intensifying her efforts after a 1986 divorce from her second husband, William Farrington. (She has one son, Michael, 41, from her first marriage.) Feeling alone (she had lost touch with her brother, now 76, but has since reunited with him), “I said, ‘I am going to really put my back into finding out and reestablishing my identity—through my father.’ ” The effort paid off: Besides the pieces of the triptych, she has tracked down some of her father’s sculptures and 120 of his 140 known paintings. Along the way she has met cousins, former neighbors and an elderly half sister, Sieglinde Fritz (from her mother’s first marriage), who died in 1993 and bequeathed Farrington her piece of the painting. In all, Farrington, who lives alone in a two-story townhouse in Heather, a village near London, has spent more than $15,000 in the hunt for Koelz’s art. But she would argue that there is no price too high: “I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my money on.”

She is “very excited” about the exhibition, says son Michael, a musicians’ tour booker who lives in London. “I hear it in her voice.” By the time the exhibition opens, Farrington expects to have found more pieces. “It’s been traumatic and expensive,” she says of her work. “But I am finding my father’s life.”

Dan Jewel

Olga Kharif in Leicestershire

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