"Expressiv: Central European Art Since 1960," a hefty, intense, provocative exhibition opening today at the Hirshhorn Museum, might well have been called "The Lost Generation."

Containing about 50 works by 30 artists from five nations -- Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia -- parts of which until 1919 formed much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is the first exhibition of its kind in the United States. The artists in it, ranging in age from 69 to 40, have been "lost," or at least hidden, by a sort of historical double whammy.

To an extent difficult to comprehend in our free-speech environment, these artists have labored in isolation from one another and from any conventional art audience, their achievements obscured because of censorship and other forms of ideological and institutional control by the Communist Party.

In scarcely less onerous ways, the efforts of these artists have been kept from view in Western Europe and the United States. This is partially due to the restrictive policies of their own governments, but it is also due to cultural pride and blindness in the West: We simply ruled out the possibility of significant art on the other side of the "Iron Curtain" or, when such art was "discovered," it was largely exploited to make political points instead of being subjected to critical analysis.

This show puts the lie to easy assumptions. It's more a sampling than a comprehensive survey, but there is a consistency to the work that supports the vision of organizers Dieter Ronte, director of the Museum of Modern Art/Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna (where a larger version of the show premiered last November), and art historian Meda Mladek of Washington.

"Especially in Central Europe," they write, "the visual arts have proved to be not an escape from reality, not a dream, but a discourse with tough realities."

At once an astute observation and, one feels, an explication of the "eye" they used to select these artists from hundreds of candidates, this statement justifies the title "Expressiv" (German for "expressive") -- most of the work here does not speak of universal truths but, rather, of somber, ruminative, intuitive and intensely individualistic attempts to come to terms with hard, elemental conditions.

Of overt political statements there are practically none. Edward Dwurnik's "June, 1956" is the chief exception -- it's a big, paint-loaded canvas depicting dark, heroic-sized figures carrying a banner declaiming (in Polish) "We Demand Bread."

Dwurnik was 13 when the great upheavals of 1956 shook the Soviet satellite states and were brutally suppressed; he was 42 when he painted this picture in 1985. His painting is thus a searing reminder, a way of refusing to forget and, by implication, a way of insisting that gains made in recent years be maintained. The irony is clear: Had he executed the painting at the time of the so-called "riots," it's not likely he would have lived. There are a few less explicit political works. Czech artist Jiri Naceradsky's paintings "Race" and "The Cyclists," both dated 1967, are scathing sendups of socialist realism and the official glorification of Socialist Man. With their exaggerated heads and limbs and their faces revealing banality or tortured compliance, these athletes represent the other, nasty side of the official mirror.

Installed at the very beginning of the exhibition, Yugoslav artist Mica Popovic's "Against the Wall" (1977) is an ambiguous signpost. Showing a slouching man (in relief) as he steps toward a definitively cruddy wall, it suggests the mean, implacable reality of the physical barrier separating East from West, and also the fruitless, ugly sorts of exchange such barriers inevitably produce.

Basically, though, political and social "messages" in this exhibition are sublimated. Rather than issue calls to specific political action, these artists demonstrate a will to survive and, above all, to create meaning. Hence there is great idiosyncrasy of expression, but at the same time there is pervasive evidence of shared reality. The edginess and urgency of the art reflects the experience of war, revolution and dictatorship.

Ales Vesely, for instance, has lived and worked in a "ruin-studio" (literally a ruin and filled with artworks made of ruins) on the outskirts of the Czech capital since the short-lived "Prague Spring" was terminated in 1968. The sole manifestation of his work here is a solitary "Chair" (1978-80) -- a charred, fanciful, unusable artifact that is like a distillation of frustration, of cruel postwar conditions we'd rather forget (and have largely forgotten, in the West). And yet it's distinctively, decisively hand-touched, a discomfiting icon of human habitation.

Polish artist Wladyslaw Hasior's surrealist-influenced "The Guest" (1965-71) is an object of gritty hilarity -- an over-the-edge transformation of nails, spiky wooden forms, spools of wire and other ordinary materials into a vicious visiting flapper. The contest between this guest and the chair she sits in is a standoff.

Such uncommon transformations are relatively common here -- Jerzy Beres invokes Poland's Catholicism in a memorable "Roadside Altar" (1976) that conjures rituals past and present, religious and political, traditional and avant-garde. The piece embodies his fiery utopianism -- it's a celebration of what he calls the "creative rhythm" above the "rhythm of catastrophes, which does nothing but create martyrs."

Similarly, human presence and activity is strongly implied in the Czech Magdalena Jetelova's "Stairs" (1982-84). All askew and dramatically oversized, these blocks of wood are weighty invitations not actually to climb but to contemplate the purpose of climbing -- a metaphysical provocation altogether equal to the impressive physicality of the piece.

Other sculptors in the exhibition invoke the human figure directly, and with results just as powerful. No one who sees it will soon forget the incantatory force of Poland's Magdalena Abakanowicz's simple arrangement of headless, seated, burlap-formed "Backs" (1976-79); nor the haunting, Gothic presence of the hardened clothing (unoccupied suits, dresses, uniforms) created in the mid-1970s by her countryman Jozef Lukomski; nor the still elegance of Yugoslav artist Branko Ruzic's arrangement of totemic forms, "The Second Stone Age" (1972), made of wood despite the title.

Each of these pieces exemplifies an engagement of matter-of-fact materials that is typical here -- art can be made of what's handy, but victories are hard won. None is more moving, in this regard, than Czech artist Adriena Simotova's "Anxiety" (1984) -- a nude woman emerges in painful stages, in little slices and cuts, from a thick roll of paper. She's tentative, ghostlike, but there's no doubt about her reality, her humanity.

In general, the three-dimensional works seem more persuasive than the paintings here, but there are exceptions. The Austrian Hermann Nitsch's mural-sized "Splashed Painting" (1982), an abstraction with the color and visceral impact of dried blood, is remindful that context can be a chief determinant of content. Here, it is impossible to see this painting as a formal exercise; it is laden with potential, if inexplicit, import -- it's as if American action painting had been given a new lease on life.

The focus on personal, expressionist art in fact carries over into all of the abstractions on view -- Hungarian Miklos Erdely's "Koestler" (1984) has the force of a screeching, mystical quest; the plaster reliefs of Gyorgy Jovanovics, his countryman, may at first appear almost mathematically precise, but their serene elegance is the result of pure, piece-by-piece intuition; Czech artist Karel Malich's "Landscape with Eternity" (1980-83), a huge, egg-shaped swirl of wires and colored planes, suggests Bauhaus rationality subjected to mystic scrutiny.

This exhibition as a whole casts a backward glance and, in so doing, calls attention to the much-changed conditions of the present, and the riddle of the future. As glasnost progresses, if it progresses, the art in Central Europe is bound to change -- and not for the better, Ronte and Mladek believe, if the change simply mimics the market-driven star system of the Western democracies.

It is oversimplifying things a good bit to state, as Mladek has, that today "the West knows a great deal about forms of expression, but it has nothing to say," but the position rivets our attention upon the authenticity of much of the art here exhibited, and the conditions that engendered this quality.

These are conditions remindful of a cautionary tale by Camus in which a painter, struggling to find his ultimate statement, gradually secludes himself from family and friends. After he dies in his upstairs studio, his masterwork is discovered to consist of nothing, nada, zero -- a blank canvas. The point that art does not, cannot, exist in a vacuum is omnipresent at the Hirshhorn -- the central irony of the show and its principal glory is that these artists continued to create despite tremendous obstacles to creativity and communication.

The Hirshhorn is the perfect place for such a belated, exploratory tribute -- James Demetrion, its director, was moved to accept the show because the character of his institution's collection is indebted in large measure to the work of American artists who were born, or whose parents were born, in Central Europe. The show, to be seen only in Washington, continues through April 17.