Durable Draftsmanship

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Collection Draws on Centuries

The exhibition "German Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580–1900" has a title that's cumbersome enough to make it characteristically German. But this display, now at the National Gallery of Art, gracefully — and deftly — canvases the many nuances of German art from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance.

It's quite a journey born out of quite a collection. Wolfgang Ratjen was one of those rare birds — a scion in a business and banking family motivated by an artistic spirit. His collection, large and diverse but focused on German drawings, was acquired by the National Gallery in 2007, giving the museum an expansive trove of German draftsmanship that spanned all the way up to the dawn of contemporary art.

Ratjen
Ratjen

 

This exhibition, which features 120 drawings from the collection, does much more than its stated objective of bridging the gallery's holdings from different artistic periods. These drawings elicit something quintessentially German, even though particular works roam through all centuries of isms and styles, from 16th-century mannerism, to 17th-century baroque, to 18th-century rococo, to early 19th-century romanticism, to late 19th-century realism.

Despite the vast expanse of artistic territory and time, one thing you can tell right away is that Ratjen was no careless collector of volume or fad. He was preternaturally picky, cultivating one of the finest private European holdings of old master drawings — rich in pure, singular gems.

Ratjen2
PHOTOS: WOLFGANG RATJEN COLLECTION
"German Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580–1900" surveys the nuances of German art with works such as, from clockwise top, Hans Rottenhammer's "Minerva and the Muses," Carl Friedrich Heinzmann's "The City of Arnberg in the Oberpfalz," Johann Georg von Dillis's "A Royal Party Admiring the Sunset atop the Hesselberg Mountain," and Adolph Menzel's "An Infant Asleep in His Crib."

 

Unless you're an aficionado of German drawings though, most of the names here — Friedrich Sustris, Adam Elsheimer, Caspar David Friedrich, Johann Georg von Dillis, etc. — won't particularly resonate. And yet, almost besotted with Italian influences, these artists added something of their native environs to almost every work that does have universal resonance and recognition.

The pieces are all identifiably, resolutely, dreamily German, whatever the subject matter or genre — whether drawings of 19th-century countrysides and other landscapes, of which there is a rich trove here, or 16th-century altar pieces and biblical tales.

Here for example, amid a section extolling the glories of German landscapes of the 1880s, is the work of Carl Friedrich Heinzmann, a celebrated landscape artist of the period who had been commissioned by one of southern Germany's many princes and royals to produce painterly views of Bavarian cities that could be reproduced on porcelain. And here I stumbled across something vaguely familiar: Heinzmann had gone to "The City of Amberg in the Oberpfalz," a place where I had lived for a time. I quickly recognized the churches, town, its green fields and river from the late 1940s — only this was a view from 1823. It's the power of recognition that only a superb artist and rendering could capture.

The German draftsmanship throughout this exhibit is justifiably famous and respected, from its earliest contributions — such as Friedrich Sustris's "An Elaborate Altar with the Resurrection of Christ and the Martyrdom of Saint Andrew" in the late 1500s — to a near-modern self-portrait by the usually more somber Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz from the early 1900s.

In between is a pink watercolor by Hans Rottenhammer depicting "Minerva and the Muses," a gathering of bodies defying solitude; the much exhibited and beloved rhinoceros by Johann Elias Ridinger; "Dresden from the Banks of the Elbe River" by Adrian Zingg; scenic landscapes and slight figure sketches by Johann Georg von Dillis; Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder's fashionable women; Otto Greiner's "Standing Male Nude from Behind"; and "An Infant Asleep in His Crib" by Adolph Menzel, who was doing a form of impressionism when Renoir was still a baby.

Together, they comprise a discovery, still very much alive after all these years. You want more — not from them, but of them. More of the peasants eating supper, the artist's wife reading in bed, or the rays of sunshine piercing through a thick German forest. We'll have to content ourselves with these 120 watercolors and drawings though, and the knowledge that art collections can preserve so much more than art — serving as a time capsule of memory, national identity, history and beauty.

Ratjen seemed to understand that. Describing his passion for art collection, he humorously called it "the most wonderful disease you can imagine." An infectious sentiment if there ever was one.

Ratjen3

"German Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580–1900" runs through Nov. 28 at the National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.The exhibition “German Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580–1900” has a title that’s cumbersome enough to make it characteristically German. But this display, now at the National Gallery of Art, gracefully — and deftly — canvases the many nuances of German art from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance. It’s quite a journey born out of quite a collection. Wolfgang Ratjen was one of those rare birds — a scion in a business and banking family motivated by an artistic spirit. His collection, large and diverse but focused on German drawings, was acquired by the National Gallery in 2007, giving the museum an expansive trove of German draftsmanship that spanned all the way up to the dawn of contemporary art. This exhibition, which features 120 drawings from the collection, does much more than its stated objective of bridging the gallery’s holdings from different artistic periods. These drawings elicit something quintessentially German, even though particular works roam through all centuries of isms and styles, from 16th-century mannerism, to 17th-century baroque, to 18th-century rococo, to early 19th-century romanticism, to late 19th-century realism. Despite the vast expanse of artistic territory and time, one thing you can tell right away is that Ratjen was no careless collector of volume or fad. He was preternaturally picky, cultivating one of the finest private European holdings of old master drawings — rich in pure, singular gems. Unless you’re an aficionado of German drawings though, most of the names here — Friedrich Sustris, Adam Elsheimer, Caspar David Friedrich, Johann Georg von Dillis, etc. — won’t particularly resonate. And yet, almost besotted with Italian influences, these artists added something of their native environs to almost every work that does have universal resonance and recognition. The pieces are all identifiably, resolutely, dreamily German, whatever the subject matter or genre — whether drawings of 19th-century countrysides and other landscapes, of which there is a rich trove here, or 16th-century altar pieces and biblical tales. Here for example, amid a section extolling the glories of German landscapes of the 1880s, is the work of Carl Friedrich Heinzmann, a celebrated landscape artist of the period who had been commissioned by one of southern Germany’s many princes and royals to produce painterly views of Bavarian cities that could be reproduced on porcelain. And here I stumbled across something vaguely familiar: Heinzmann had gone to “The City of Amberg in the Oberpfalz,” a place where I had lived for a time. I quickly recognized the churches, town, its green fields and river from the late 1940s — only this was a view from 1823. It’s the power of recognition that only a superb artist and rendering could capture. The German draftsmanship throughout this exhibit is justifiably famous and respected, from its earliest contributions — such as Friedrich Sustris’s “An Elaborate Altar with the Resurrection of Christ and the Martyrdom of Saint Andrew” in the late 1500s — to a near-modern self-portrait by the usually more somber Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz from the early 1900s.

Ratjen4In between is a pink watercolor by Hans Rottenhammer depicting “Minerva and the Muses,” a gathering of bodies defying solitude; the much exhibited and beloved rhinoceros by Johann Elias Ridinger; “Dresden from the Banks of the Elbe River” by Adrian Zingg; scenic landscapes and slight figure sketches by Johann Georg von Dillis; Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder’s fashionable women; Otto Greiner’s “Standing Male Nude from Behind”; and “An Infant Asleep in His Crib” by Adolph Menzel, who was doing a form of impressionism when Renoir was still a baby. Together, they comprise a discovery, still very much alive after all these years. You want more — not from them, but of them. More of the peasants eating supper, the artist’s wife reading in bed, or the rays of sunshine piercing through a thick German forest. We’ll have to content ourselves with these 120 watercolors and drawings though, and the knowledge that art collections can preserve so much more than art — serving as a time capsule of memory, national identity, history and beauty. Ratjen seemed to understand that. Describing his passion for art collection, he humorously called it “the most wonderful disease you can imagine.” An infectious sentiment if there ever was one. German Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580–1900 through Nov. 28 National Gallery of Art located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 25, 2014