SOMETIMES we Washingtonians take the National Gallery of Art for granted and overlook the daily gift this free museum is.

At her best, she shines as brightly as any museum in the world, and at her worst -- remember the empty hoopla associated with the 1987 show of those Andrew Wyeth "Helgas"? -- well, let's just say that her worst is an anomaly.

In five recently opened special exhibitions (most of them small, one huge, in all spanning 7,000 years of art) a snapshot emerges of the National Gallery at the top of her form, doing what she does best without the fanfare, hype or long lines we often associate with her greatest hits. Among the current buffet of offerings -- the photographs of Brassai, the drawings of Carracci, Schongauer and Holbein (with Grunewald, Durer and others in between), the wood sculpture of Riemenschneider and the strange and anonymous artifacts of Chinese antiquity -- there is not a single marquee name, not a single Vermeer or van Gogh to rouse the museumgoing populace from its slumber.

Yet each show here, each chapter, if you will, in the long and ongoing story of art that the National Gallery tells so well, has rewards to surprise and even quietly amaze you -- as long as you open up your eyes and heart and let them find you.

All at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial). 202/737-4215 (TDD: 202/842-6176). Web site: Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, Sunday from 11 to 6. Free admission.

Carracci's Pen

Legend has it that young Annibale Carracci was so talented with the sketch pad that, when he and his father were mugged during a road trip, the 16th-century child prodigy from Bolgna, Italy, was able to knock out a couple of dead-on wanted posters so accurate that their attackers were quickly recognized and rounded up by the locals.

It probably didn't happen quite this way, but you might be tempted to believe the yarn when you see some of Carracci's unnervingly lifelike faces, like the red and white-chalk drawing of "The Lutenist Mascheroni." Along with another smaller pen-and-ink study also on view, this highly polished portrait ("sketch" seems hardly appropriate for a likeness that breathes so) was made in preparation for Carracci's 1593-1594 painting of the musician, most likely as a reference to consult in absence of the sitter.

Carracci, usually considered the last great Renaissance painter (or the first great Baroque one), was obsessed with a little thing called truth -- particularly in reaction to the distortion of the Mannerists currently in vogue. Along with his older brother Agostino and their cousin Ludovico, Carracci championed the study of anatomy, perspective and the science of optics in art.

Still, if there's anything academic about Carracci's portraits and figure studies, all tightness vanishes in the coarser, almost abstract strokes seen in his later pen-and-ink drawings, which come from what some have had the audacity to dub the artist's "ugly period."

You are cordially invited to disagree.


Brassai's Eye

Picture a cobblestone street lightly dusted with snow (say, the Boulevard Saint-Jacques on Paris's Left Bank). It's a cold night in winter, 1931 -- or is it 1932 already? -- as you pass a man in a herringbone coat peering into the viewfinder of a tripod-mounted Voightlander. The camera points downward, not at the surrounding city but at the deserted expanse of the slush-covered street itself.

Waiting to complete the exposure, the photographer shifts from one foot to another as he takes a hot drag from the filterless Gauloise clenched in his jaw (for longer exposures, he would smoke the more tightly packed Boyards). When the ashes almost singe his lips, he stubs out the butt in the gutter -- time to close the shutter.

Just another night's work for Gyula Halasz, the man who called himself Brassai (literally "from Brasso," after his Transylvanian birthplace) and whom his pal, the writer Henry Miller, dubbed "the Eye of Paris."

For years, Brassai roamed the nighttime streets of his adopted home with a camera, shooting its darkened bridges, alleys and monuments. As at home in the demimonde of gangsters and gay bars as he was at the masked balls where he found his subjects, he could hang with prostitutes and madams one minute and painters such as Picasso the next, all of whom he captured with the same penetrating but disarming gaze.

His nudes are both erotic and surreal; his lovers kiss then quarrel; from the funk of New Orleans's French Quarter to the majesty of New York's Grand Central Station, he turned his peripatetic lens.

Among the great photographers of the 20th century, Brassai's influence is formidable. Diane Arbus saw an artistic kinship in their mutual love of "the forbidden." And just check out Ken Ashton's black-and-white photos of Paris street life on view at the District Fine Arts gallery in Georgetown if you want to see the debt one contemporary artist owes to Brassai's seminal graffiti studies.

"I do not seek out the exceptional," said Brassai. "I avoid it." Somehow, it managed to find him.

BRASSAI: THE EYE OF PARIS -- Through Jan. 16, 2000.

Drawing Comparisons

You can't help but feel a powerful undertow in "From Schongauer to Holbein: Master Drawings from Basel and Berlin," as you watch the tide of late Gothic art ebb from the shores of Northern Europe and the wave of the Renaissance come crashing down on top of it.

The exhibition begins with Martin Schongauer and his brother Ludwig's late 15th-century drawings of saints and sinners, all crackling with brittle static electricity.

But it ends with the operatic realism of Hans Holbein the Younger's lightning-lit religious tableaus.

In between, the roiling surf tosses up such delightful oddities as Matthias Grunewald, probably the most expressive (and strange) German painter of the Renaissance, and the one about whom the least is known. Only recently has this engineer-cum-artist's real name -- Mathis Nithart (or Gothart) -- been discovered.

Observe his 1520 "Crying Head," one of two chalk studies of a weeping face. Here, as in much of Grunewald's work, the ululating subject's tortured emotions melt the flesh nearly to the point of abstraction. Unrecognizable by gender, age or class, the gape-mouthed portrait is less human than icon -- an outcropping of volcanic pain rising out of a fog-shrouded pool of tears.

If you don't need a palate-cleansing sorbet at this point, you would do well to seek out another Grunewald, in fact the only one of his paintings in a public collection outside Europe. Like the uncompromising "Crying Head," the bleeding, green-skinned and gaunt Christ of the National Gallery's "Small Crucifixion" may be an acquired taste, but is one worth cultivating.

FROM SCHONGAUER TO HOLBEIN: Master Drawings From Basel and Berlin -- Through Jan. 9, 2000.

A Master's Sculpture

When Tilman Riemenschneider undertook to carve the retable for the parish church of Mary Magdalen in Munnerstadt, the German sculptor was paid all of 145 guilders for his trouble. Made between 1490 and 1492, the altarpiece is the largest of his career and one of the first to buck the medieval trend toward polychromed, or painted, wood.

Twelve years later, unhappy with the plain finish of the limewood, the church hired Veit Stoss to add decorative paint (ironically for 50 percent more than they originally paid Riemenschneider to carve it!). Stoss at least realized the folly of desecrating his competitor's handiwork, since in his very next contract he stipulated that his own wood be left unpainted.

Dismantled in the 17th century and its components scattered to the four winds, the Munnerstadt altar is represented here by carvings of the four evangelists and two Mary Magdalen-themed reliefs, their butterscotch-brown surfaces now restored to their original -- if slightly insect-damaged -- state. Remarkable for the sense of drama it creates in the flattest of formats, "Christ in the House of Simon" (carved into a panel made of several vertically joined planks less than two inches thick) is best viewed at a distance of 10 to 15 feet -- even though the walls of the gallery are not tall enough to hang it at its intended height.

Upon close inspection, the Pharisee's dinner guests appear awkward and puppetlike as their seemingly disembodied heads hover above the repentant harlot at Jesus's feet, but as you step back, Riemenschneider's understanding of optics -- and the potency of the simple psychological gesture -- come into sharp focus.

To further heighten the impact, sit on the floor -- that is, if the guards will let you.

TILMAN RIEMENSCHNEIDER: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages -- Through

Jan. 9, 2000.

Digging China

aybe you can't take it with you, but no one ever told Liu Sheng that.

That Chinese ruler, who died roughly 21 centuries ago not all that far from the city we now call Beijing, was buried in his mountainside tomb wearing a shroud tailor-made from almost 2,500 jade tiles sewn together with gold wire. More like armor than a shroud, really, the bodysuit, complete with a little extra girth to accommodate a paunch and a soccer player's protective cup, sealed his body in from head to toe.

And what of the eight accompanying jade plugs of various sizes? They were meant to close off the body's orifices from evil spirits (and yes, the one that looks like a wine cork goes exactly where you think it does).

Laid out like a customer in a morgue, Liu Sheng's shroud is the only case where the whiff of death can be detected in the National Gallery's lavish look at recent Chinese archaeological finds -- many of which come from tombs unearthed in the last 25 years.

There are also a few of those life-size terra soldiers, 7,000 of which were buried when the first emperor, Shihuangdi, passed away around 210 B.C., along with a roomful of artifacts that went down with Marquis Yi roughly two centuries earlier. (Not one to go gently into that good night, Yi also took eight concubines and a baker's dozen of servant girls with him.)

There's a great name -- necropolis -- for the concept of a furnished condo in the afterlife. The word sounds creepy, but the show isn't. As anyone who digs in the mud for a living will tell you, sometimes the deeper you go, the more beautiful things get.