German realist drawings depict an era

DRAWING has always been one of the greatest strengths of German art. Albrecht D"urer and Hans Holbein alone created many of the world's finest drawings, and dozens of other artists, from Lucas Cranach to K"athe Kollwitz, achieved fame as much for their draftsmanship as for their other accomplishments. German drawings tend to be precise, linear, intensely focused, and psychologically penetrating, with a special emphasis on character delineation and faithfulness to appearance. They lend themselves particularly well to irony, satire, and propaganda, but they can also be remarkably tender and sentimental.

All these characteristics can be found in ``German Realist Drawings of the 1920s,'' now on view at the Guggenheim Museum. This excellent exhibition, organized by Carol Selle and Peter Nisbet for the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, is the first to detail, through its drawings, the full range and depth of the post-World War I German movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit or ``new objectivity.'' It consists of 123 works by 29 artists and includes exceptionally fine examples by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Karl Hubbuch.

Unfortunately, even the inclusion of these artists may not create a great deal of interest in this exhibition. And that's a pity, for it is one of the best and most important shows of the season.

Nothing proves the narrow, formalist bias of America's reading of 20th-century art history more than the fact that, of the 29 artists represented here, only Beckmann and Grosz are likely to be known to the general public. Even Dix, that most extraordinary and original draftsman, whose anti-war drawings and prints come close to rivaling those of Goya and Picasso, will almost certainly come as a surprise to 90 percent of those who view this exhibition. And I'd be amazed if more than one visitor out of 300 will have heard of Hubbuch.

Perhaps what most of these artists produced is too fervent and personal -- even, at times, too painful. Their intensity should not surprise us, however, for German artists of the 1920s had been profoundly affected by the war and by the ruinous social and political upheavals that followed it.

But life went on, and the artists recorded what they saw and felt. Beckmann, Grosz, and Dix, in particular, cut to the very heart of the place and period to expose not only the horrors of war and the weaknesses of a society that had lost its bearings, but also the hypocrisy, overweening ambition, and all-consuming self-interest that had helped bring about these conditions. No image, not even any of Goya's, is more chillingly blunt in its depiction of human insensitivity to the tragedies of others than Grosz's ``The Butcher Shop'' of 1928. And nothing done in this century better exemplifies human folly and perversity than the large charcoal drawing Dix made of ``The Seven Deadly Sins.''

This insistence on getting to the truth of whatever was depicted resulted in some of the best portrait drawings of the century. Dix's incisive and elegant ``Portrait of Karl Seidel'' honors the tradition of D"urer and Holbein, just as his ``Worker'' makes it very clear that he and his art belong exclusively to the 20th century. And it would be difficult to find another draftsman, either modern or traditional, who could surpass Rudolf Grossman's ``Portrait of Heinrich W"olfflin'' or Rudolf Schlichter's ``Portrait of the Wife of Kurt Weinhold'' for precise yet subtle characterization. Even Conrad Felixm"uller's ``The Worker Elsner,'' clumsy and close to caricature though it may be, has a directness to it that is both remarkable and rare.

A number of other works stress the complex linearism that is the special domain of pen-and-ink and pencil drawing and that requires the kind of discipline and patience associated with fine craftsmanship. Here again, Schlichter and Hubbuch stand out. The latter's ``The Uncle from America,'' with its sharp-focus detail and highly selective ``super-realism'' that comes so close to fantasy, almost steals the show from its more famous and high-powered neighbors.

Irony, satire, psychological acuity, and ruthless examinations of social and political evils set the tone of German realist drawings of the 1920s. And for that I am grateful, for it means we have been left a body of work of inestimable historical as well as aesthetic value.

After its closing at the Guggenheim on July 6, the exhibition will travel to the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Mass. (July 26-Sept.28), and then to the Statsgalerie in Stuttgart (Oct.25-Dec.28).

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