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Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum

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© Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München

“This is a collection that was created in a time of stress and continued throughout times of stress,” says Jennifer Tonkovich, a curator at the Morgan Library & Museum, describing the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, one of Europe’s most distinguished collections of drawings. Now through January 6, 2013, the Morgan is hosting a selection of those pieces in “Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich.” Rarely seen works on this side of the Atlantic, ethereal in their mastery and purpose, they tease the entire collection, which is comprised of an unimaginable 450,000 sheets.

The works themselves get under your skin. The soaring Bavarian Baroque design in the trompe l’oeil ceiling of a southern church by Melchior Steidl; the vibrant color in Nude Girl in an Interior by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (pictured above); the studied diplomacy of a portrait by Reubens of the Duke of Lerma, upended by his collage-style use of Charles V’s head as placeholder for the Duke’s; the beauty of Pontormo’s hooded figures drawn in red chalk; Matthias Grünewald’s extraordinary portrayal of a Bavarian woman in prayer, fingers resting patiently at the bottom of the frame.

Many of these drawings were saved from history. Before the entire collection’s 50th birthday in 1794, the works moved away from French Revolutionary forces and out of harm’s way for the first time. In July 1944, drawings not evacuated from Neue Pinakothek, the only museum in Munich to remain open during World War II, were bombed. A third of the collection, nearly all of the pieces from the French and British schools, vanished in a brightly illuminated act of irony.

These 100 sheets have total clarity of vision, revealing the ages of humanity without the scrims of politics or history. Die Brücke, a movement founded in Dresden in 1905, contributes German expressionism using gesture and color. A 1925 portrait by Rudolf Schlichter shows the subject’s exquisitely modeled features, none idealized, rendered in simple pencil. And an extraordinary painted image by A.R. Penck is “…not unlike Outsider Art,” observes Tonkovich. “He’s completely self-taught. Unlike [fellow painters] Polke and Baselitz, he didn’t get out of the GDR.”

Penck sent his modern work—which was not sanctified there—over the wall, showing it under pseudonyms in the west. The Morgan showcases a piece called I and the Cosmos: black sky, blank spots for stars, one ill-proportioned red figure looking up in profile, the only apparent feature his eye. It, like the exhibit, is unforgettable. Through January 6, 2013; 225 Madison Ave.; 212-685-0008; themorgan.org.

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