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A 91-PIECE <i> WUNDERBAR </i> EXHIBIT

The Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne is a three-star institution in a three-star city, according to the Michelin green guide to West Germany, but the museum’s fame doesn’t match its rating.

Though art historians know that this international storehouse includes the world’s most comprehensive holding of Cologne medieval painting, the museum isn’t familiar to most Americans. Aficionados of contemporary art tend to discover its wealth in the course of visiting Peter Ludwig’s celebrated cache of Pop art, housed in the same building.

The Wallraf-Richartz might have remained a specialist’s secret and a serendipitous discovery for contemporary art lovers had it not outgrown its quarters and launched into a building project. Presumably faced with storage problems during construction, museum leaders made a decision that has become increasingly common in these days of rampant museum building: The Wallraf-Richartz would send some of its treasures on the road, in this case with the help of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

This procedure is a little like packing the children off to visit relatives while you remodel the house, except that the relatives may never speak to you again. Well-chosen artworks, on the other hand, are likely to enhance your reputation. This is definitely the case with “Three Centuries of German Painting and Drawing” at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (through July 20).

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The 91 German works from the 17th through the 19th centuries compose a low-key, high-quality survey that seems to reflect the character of the museum. Presenting neither a bumper crop of masterpieces nor a single example of its revered medieval collection (which is probably too fragile to travel), the Wallraf-Richartz nonetheless asserts itself as an institution rich in German art history.

Make that bourgeois German art history. Neither the museum nor the section of its collection presented in this traveling show has courtly connections. Because Cologne was not a prince’s residence, its “art treasures were drawn from the realm of bourgeois humanism,” writes museum director Rainer Budde in the catalogue. You’ll find no unseemly displays of wealth and no flattering portraits of royalty in the exhibition. Most of the people depicted are sturdy, sensible, upstanding folk, though they range from rough-hewn pillars of the community to peasants.

Carl Begas’ stiff portrait of his well-dressed family is not typical of the show’s style or content but it sets a tone of familial values and moral rectitude than runs through much of the work. Those who prefer the more hedonistic side of art will find the joylessness mollified by cozy bucolic scenes and spiritually charged landscapes. But there’s something to be said for the hard-working, highly principled people portrayed here: If they don’t have much fun, at least they aren’t vapid, and their images don’t conform to a stereotype.

The stuffiness of Gottfried van Wedig’s “Portrait of Magdalena Stroe” (a portly woman whose starched costume might as well be a suit of armor) is balanced by genre scenes and sympathetic depictions of casual country folk. Fritz von Uhde’s small oil, “Girl Peeling Potatoes,” for example, seems a thoroughly natural likeness of a young woman at work in mean surroundings. Neither heroic nor pathetic, she has an inner life that lends her a subtle dignity.

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Any group embracing 300 years and 60 artists is bound to be a bit of a stew. Bubbling lightly through the more dour aspects of German art and stopping short of the 20th Century’s expressionistic anguish, this distinctly middle-class brew is tinged with an international flavor. Here’s an Italianate landscape and over there is a German version of French Impressionism. As if to make things more complicated, we’re told in the exhibition catalogue that Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich’s “Landscape With Ruins” is “reminiscent of 17th-Century Dutch Italianists.”

German artists did not work in isolation, but no serious art watcher would accuse this show of coming from France or Italy. Taken as an ensemble, the art is too dark, too somber and weighty, its romance too fraught with melancholy. In short, the exhibition is notably true to the stern German artistic character.

“A commitment to devoutness, a love of nature, passion for expressive detailed realism, and a yearning for clarity of formal expression” are the “national qualities” of German art cited by Donald McClelland, the Smithsonian’s international exhibitions coordinator, in his catalogue essay. His list indicates the reach of a show that incorporates romanticism, classicism and realism.

The “love,” “passion” and “yearning” that he notes emphasize emotional idealism. That, too, is an accurate reading. With its brooding tone, its preoccupations with a Gothic past and its generous assortment of crumbling ruins and sublimely haunted landscapes, the show settles into memory as predominantly romantic even though it isn’t. That impression is partly due to the strength of such images as Caspar David Friedrich’s “Oak in the Snow” (1927) and Carl Friedrich Lessing’s “Cloister Courtyard in the Snow” (circa 1929).

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Both are frigid winter pictures that seem preoccupied with death, though Friedrich is said to have used the oak as a symbol of heathen ways. Whether or not you see his tree as a figure and the broken branches in the foreground as a reminder of mortality (as the catalogue suggests), there’s no escaping this painting’s message about human vulnerability and the ferocity of nature. Lessing’s well-known painting--with its shadowy parade of monks filing into a medieval building--clearly sounds a dirge but in such an exquisitely frozen setting that death becomes seductive.

The art selected to travel parallels the development of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, which has its own fascinating history. Though founded in 1824 with the last testament of Ferdinand Franz Wallraf--a scholar, canon and astute collector--the museum extends Cologne’s much older tradition of preserving Renaissance humanism.

This tradition was carried forth by “an unbroken chain of scholarly collectors, themselves drawn from the ranks of the ordinary citizenry and extending all the way back to the 15th Century” who “created a new type of collection, the small treasure room,” according to Budde. As the last link in this chain, Wallraf is credited with providing “the sole basis for the emergence of Cologne’s museums during the next two centuries.”

At his death, Wallraf gave the city 1,712 paintings, 41,655 prints and drawings, along with thousands of manuscripts, documents, seals and books, and masses of less easily categorized items, from fossils to armor. Wallraf had stipulated that his bequest be open to the public; it was, but originally in cramped storage quarters. It took nearly 40 years for a museum to be built for the collection. In 1854, Johann Heinrich Richartz, a leather goods merchant, donated funds for the structure, which finally opened in 1861.

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The museum subsequently was renovated and its collection broadened, but the war years (from 1914 through the ‘40s) wreaked havoc on the institution. The Nazi search for “degenerate” art in 1937 ripped modern masterworks from the museum and a 1943 air raid destroyed the building. Fortunately, by then, the rest of the collection had been safely stashed away.

After the war, the museum was rebuilt and the collections began to grow again. In 1968 the city acquired the Ludwig collection, establishing a separate museum for it. Now the Wallraf-Richartz is about to move again, along with the Ludwig Museum. When the German artworks return this fall from their U.S. tour, they will be installed in a new complex next to the Cologne Cathedral. The two museums, plus a concert hall, are part of an old-town renovation project in the central city.

Cologne’s three-star status is in no danger.


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