by Michael O’Sullivan | The Washington Post | June 4, 2010

washingtonpostTwo exhibitions opened last month at the National Gallery of Art, one building — and an ocean — apart from each other.

More than footsteps separates the East Building’s “American Modernism: The Shein Collection” from the West Building’s “German Master Drawings From the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580-1900.” The first is, primarily, a painting show. It’s tiny, containing only 20 pieces in two small galleries. It tells the story of a single century (well, part of one: it covers work from 1913 to 1962). And it’s exuberantly American.

On the other side of Fourth Street, you’ll find 120 drawings spanning more than three centuries and filling five rooms. They manifest a distinctly old-world charm.

What could these two shows possibly have to do with each other? The most recent drawing from the Ratjen collection — Leopold Graf Kalckreuth’s “The Artist’s Son Wolf Crouching on the Floor” — was made in 1900. The earliest picture in “Modernism” — Marsden Hartley’s “Pre-War Pageant” (a.k.a. “Paris Days . . . Pre-War”) — was painted in 1913. Those 13 years are a wide gulf.

The National Gallery, however, is good at filling in gaps. As you stroll from one show to the other, you’re more than likely to encounter many, many pictures that help make the connections.

Spend a little more time with each show, and with a little careful looking, you may even start to see hidden links — traces of the old in the new, and a foreshadowing of the modern in the antique — that you might not have noticed before. Here are a couple to look out for:

Part of the collection of Deborah and Ed Shein, Preston Dickinson’s “Still Life No. 1” seems a little out of place in the East Wing show. For one thing, the 1924 canvas depicts easily recognizable objects: a chair draped with striped neckties; linen napkins; a fruit-filled bowl and a knife. Though there are other still lifes in “American Modernism,” it takes guesswork to figure out what they contain.

Dickinson’s piece, then, is kind of a throwback: a mostly straightforward picture — with mere touches of abstraction — in an age when many of his peers were throwing verisimilitude out the window.

Now take a look at the Ratjen collection. You find a pair of works there from 1817: “Shriveled Leaves” and “A Branch With Shriveled Leaves,” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Though far from modern — leaf studies were common drawing exercises at the time — there’s something different about these lovely works. Neither botanical illustration nor, in all likelihood, meant to evoke the symbolism of death, they’re about as close to pure abstraction as you’ll get in the 19th century.

Compare the folds of the withered leaves — beauty for beauty’s sake — with those of Dickinson’s crumpled napkins, and you just might hear echoes of the same distant music, playing across the divide of a century.