Art: Tracing the Underground Stream

In London, a major but uneven survey of German modernism

"German Art in the 20th Century," the huge show of some 300 works by 52 artists that has been the talk of London since it opened at the Royal Academy in October, has a clear agenda. It wants to prove something, and that something is continuity, from 1905 to 1985.

The usual view of German modernism, which prevailed until quite recently, tells a very different story. It depicts young outsiders who are rapturously expressive in their rebellion against painterly norms before World War I and bitterly sardonic in their attacks on society after it. These artists rehearse the last phase of...

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