D"URER'S ``Praying Hands,'' probably the world's most famous drawing, and certainly one of its best, is the centerpiece of as fine a selection of Old Master drawings as has ever been assembled in America. Also included in this very special exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library here are superb examples by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Bruegel, Poussin, Watteau, and 52 other outstanding artists. ``Old Master Drawings from the Albertina'' celebrates the bicentennial of political and economic relations between Austria and the United States. Preliminary plans to borrow these works from Vienna's Albertina, a former Austrian palace that now houses one of the very finest collections of Old Master drawings in the world, were laid almost 20 years ago. Negotiations for the loan of ``Praying Hands'' were particularly sensitive. Since it is one of Austria's greatest treasures, and had never been seen outside the Albertina, the question of its traveling to America required four transatlantic visits by Dr. Charles Ryskamp, the Morgan Library's director, before permission was finally granted.
Of the 89 works on view, 75 are on loan from the Albertina, and were seen in Washington, D.C., when the show opened there originally last October. The remaining 14 drawings -- most of them by D"urer -- come from the Morgan Library's own collection.
With one exception -- Van Dyck's ``The Arrest of Christ,'' which is only of interest because of the artist's reputation -- the drawings assembled for this exhibition are unquestionably first rate, and no less than 30 must be described as great. D"urer, in particular, is well represented, with a total of 18 drawings. These include, in addition to ``Praying Hands,'' ``Knight on Horseback,'' ``Head of an Apostle,'' ``The Virgin Nursing the Child,'' ``Adam and Eve,'' and ``Portrait of a Kneeling Donor.''
Rembrandt is represented by three magnificent drawings, including ``An Elephant''; Michelangelo by ``Seated Male Nude''; Raphael by three studies; Rubens by four superb sketches; and Bruegel by two, with his ``Painter and Connoiseur'' very definitely holding its own even in this company. Also outstanding are Hans Baldung's ``Witches Sabbath II'' and ``Head of Saturn,'' Carracci's ``Portrait of a Member of the Mascheroni Family,'' and Watteau's ``Two Studies of a Young Woman.''
Viewing this exhibition is an extraordinary experience, for one seldom gets to see so much quality in so relatively small a space. Contrary to my fears, ``Praying Hands'' is even greater than I had expected, proof positive -- if any is needed -- that a great image cannot be demeaned, no matter how many poor reproductions, either in the form of cheap color prints or tawdry ceramic pieces, flood the market. Although intended merely as a study -- the sheet of paper on which it exists was originally larger and contained the head of an apostle -- this drawing is so sensitively executed and is so complete in itself that it isn't surprising it has become one of the West's best-loved religious images.
And neither is it surprising, considering the breadth of its coverage, that this exhibition could easily serve as a catalog of Western drawing's many styles and techniques. Altdorfer's and D"urer's precise North European delineations, for instance, stand in dramatic contrast to Rembrandt's quickly dashed-off sketches and Poussin's and Lorrain's freely rendered wash-and-ink studies. And few drawings could be more dissimilar in technique than the tight silverpoint image of a man drawn by an unknown German master at the end of the 15th century, and Greuze's flamboyant pastel and chalk head of a girl executed in the mid-18th century.
But whatever the differences, nothing in this show violates drawing's traditional precept that its primary function is to transcribe what the eye sees and human intelligence knows of physical reality onto a flat surface with lines, dots, or other graphic means. Every drawing here represents a creative ``dialogue'' between observed reality and an artist's imagination and sensibilities. Even such fanciful pieces as ``The Assumption of the Virgin'' by Rubens and ``St. George and the Dragon'' by a 15th-century Upper German master, are based on a careful study of existing forms, individuals, and places.
The result is a group of 89 pictorial documents detailing how 60 exceptional to great artists confronted and transcribed what they saw, knew, and felt into primarily linear images reflective of their talents, ideas, ideals, and imaginations. Each of these ``documents'' represents not only an individual artist's perceptions and attitudes, but those of his period, school, religion, and class as well. And when we examine the ``document'' of someone like Michelangelo, we also see a personalized distillation of a grand and noble tradition that began in ancient Greece, continued through the Romans, was reevaluated and redirected by Giotto, expanded and consolidated by Masaccio, and brought to full and glorious realization in the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.
No wonder this exhibition has been so eagerly awaited. It isn't merely a collection of beautiful drawings, but a capsule survey of some of the highlights of European cultural history from roughly 1420 to 1770, as well as an intimate record of the many different ways talent and genius have confronted nature and tradition to create art.
At the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through May 26. A Monday column