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German realist drawings depict an era

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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.


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