Keats thought beauty truth. But beauty often lies. The perfection of Greek statues helps us to forget the labors of Greek slaves; Leonardo's drawings rarely call attention to the cruel and ceaseless wars of the Renaissance in Italy; Louis XIV furniture does not bring to mind the fleas and stinking latrines of the palace at Versailles.

Antique works of art drain history of horror. Their elegance, their beauty, make the past appealing. But the new art in "History as Content," which opens the fall season at the Washington Project for the Arts, 404 Seventh St. NW., is far less forgiving. The past that it reveals is as bloody and as violent and as awful as it was.

Mussolini rants, East German soldiers guard the wall that cuts Berlin in two, old Baltimore gets trashed, Fidel, Ho and Che' fight their revolutions, a young mother gets raped, jet planes crash in flames, blackened corpses rot. These works of art are new. But most of them look backward -- to 1945, to Carthage, or to the crimes of last week.

The artists here work in Washington, Baltimore or Richmond. Although their art is handsome, it is rarely happy. It tends to offer warnings. Most of what they make is either poignant or distressing. A mood that mixes pity, bitterness and anger presides over this show.

In a diorama by Washington's James Duckworth we see fallen columns in the sand suggesting an ancient culture long ago destroyed. A jet burns in the sky. An armored truck is rotting. The old wars have not ended. Duckworth's piece is not that big, but its scale suggests vastness. An unimaginable explosion has seared the desert landscape. One of the great pyramids (its base is all one sees) has been blown clear away.

The face of Adolf Hitler in "Troubled Youth" by Washington's Steven Carroll Foster is less ferocious than pathetic. The pointed Alps that march behind Hitler's head suggest serried spikes; the loose brushstrokes of his shirt suggest the seethings of his mind. The portrait is surrounded by legends: "Troubled Youth," "Seduction," "Order" and "Beware." Foster's "Please Don't Be Waiting for Me" is a dreamlike vision of a tunneling beneath the Berlin Wall.

Hitler also appears in the jazzy-and-horrific works of Baltimore's James Woodside. So do Joe McCarthy, Mussolini, Rudolph Hess and Hermann Go ering. Woodside takes his images and legends from high school history textbooks. His rough drawing and bright colors, his nearly childish style, tames the horror of his images, until that very tameness brings the horror back alive.

Baltimore's Ann Fessler calls her installation a "crime report" on rape. The installation is a bedroom in which translucent printed banners let us glimpse the thoughts of both the rapist and his victim: "He said it was her fault for not locking the door." "She was numb to everything except fear." A small antique print of the "Rape of the Sabine Women" hangs beside a televsion screen. On a recent visit, the television's gray static mirrored, for a moment, the gray mental static of the bedroom scene. But then the TV tape rewound, and the television screen began relating rape "myths" and rape "facts" with the insistent drone of a criminologist's lecture. Her set did better showing static. Its dull, didactic preaching cut the emotional power of Fessler's installation by something more than half.

Another sort of rape concerns Baltimore's Wayne L. Nield II -- the rape of his city. His "Fragile Baltimore" is a loving -- and obsessive -- paean to the recently destroyed buildings of that town. We are in a darkened storage room, surrounded by wood crates. They might hold Egyptian grave goods, but we instead discover that the crates contain bits of old tin ceilings, thin Corinthian columns, and bits of wood Victorian gingerbread all scavenged by the artist from houses that once stood on Lombard and Pratt streets. There is rage in Nield's nostalgia. Those streets will never look the same.

The lovely near-abstract art of Washington's Denise Ward-Brown is also filled with longing -- for a feminine and formal, now wholly vanished past. She composes her collages of doilies, bits of lace, Victorian picture frames, ribbons, bows and buttons. Formally, her works suggest a kind of complex three-dimensional Cubism. Emotionally, they bring to mind that scene in Dickens' novel where the sad old lady -- jilted oh so long ago -- is found among the cobwebbed candles, rotting lace and rat-nibbled cakes of her wedding feast.

The best portraits in the show are by Richmond's Kevin M. Kelley and Washington's Mark Clark. Both men portray their heroes. Clark's come from the mirrored world of double-cross, violence, civil war and revolution. Kelley's come instead from literature and art.

Kelley paints on "Shrinky-dink," a plastic he deforms with heat. His splendid little portraits -- of William Burroughs, Balzac, Braque, Francis Bacon, Muhammad Ali, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Harold Pinter -- are not much larger than his palm. But perhaps because he fits them into splendid little frames (some shaped like gravestones, some like medals), his portraits have great presence and great weight.

Clark's pictures intentionally deceive. What seems a pleasant still life, a piece of South American peasant art, turns out to hold an image of Che' Guevara's corpse. That old Russian icon is backed by Stalin's face. Clark's "Saigon Souvenir" shows Ho and Giap and Buddhist priests going up in flames. A life-size pack of Camels is included in his show: on its back where one expects to find words on Choice Tobaccos, one instead discovers Arafat's bearded face. Many of Clark's objects are far less explicit. His art -- like the minds of the anarchists and revolutionaries he has taken as his subjects -- is woven of feints, intentional betrayals and misleading clues.

Though "You're in the Army Now," a video by Richmond's Tony Cokes, drones on rather pompously as art videos tend to do, and though the nicest thing about the art of Richmond's Davi Det Hompson is the way he spells his name (he was once called David E. Thompson), "History as Content" is as strong an exhibition as the WPA has put on in some time. It was arranged with care by the WPA's Helen Brunner.

"History as Content" is subtitled "A Survey of Baltimore, Richmond and Washington Artists Who Use History as Source Material." It is one-third of something called the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond Exchange. Artists' organizations in each city -- the Anderson Gallery in Richmond, the Maryland Art Place and the School 33 Art Center in Baltimore, and the WPA -- are each offering exhibits whose participating artists come from all three towns. A number of performances -- by Liz Lerman, The Tinklers and Paul Metcalf -- will be part of "History as Content," which closes Oct. 20.