Not for years has Washington been so enveloped in war and peace rhetoric. Each day brings new reports of fresh discord. The Americans accuse the Soviets of fomenting bloodshed the Russians bitterly deny it, and the Chinese condemn them both as superpowers hurtling toward a cataclysmic showdown on the battlefield. Each day brings more disquieting headlines. On Sunday morning we awake to read that "Carter, Gromyko Disagree Sharply." On Monday the bold banner proclaims forbiddingly: "Brzezinski Delivers Attack on Soviets, Draws Hard Line." On Tuesday the martial drumbeats continue: "Carter Presses Attack on Soviets."
We have, it seems, either stepped back into the Cold War, or are entering a grimmer period of new international tension.
As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said, in another context, "So it goes."
However depressing the news, a sure antidote exists in Washington these days. At the foot of Capitol Hill, on a nine-acre plot, at what was the last major underdeveloped site on Pennsylvania Avenue, a place of stunning beauty has taken form. If the times seem bent on destuction, here stands a monument to creation. If pessimists and cynics and pragmatic realists abound, here rises proof that dreamers, too, can prevail.
No matter what you've already heard or read about the great new National Gallery East, that opens tomorrow, it has not been exaggerated. If anything, the praise has been understated.
The Mellon family and the architect, I. M. Pei, has given the nation a splendid treasure, a place of light and space and beauty that can only inspire the millions who will visit it and enhance the art it houses.
All its attributed either have been or will be explored by the critics; they undoubtedly will be appreciated by the general public in the days to come. But there's another side to its opening that gives the East Building exhibits a special power at this moment. By a fortuitous piece of timing, the East Building's major inaugural exhibition presents five centuries of art-collecting from Dresden, Germany, courtesy of the East Germany government and a number of public and private American sponsors.
"The Splendor of Dresden" exhibit alone is worth any amount of standing in line. More than 700 works of art, collected and brought to Dresden over the centuries, are displayed. For sheer beauty the paintings, sculpture, jewelry, bronzes, porcelain, prints and other magnificient objects rival the gallery's earlier Chinese and Egyptian exhibitions. You surely will be entranced.
What's even more memorable, though, is how these treasures came to Washington - how, indeed, they still exist.
The National Gallery, in describing these irreplaceable masterpieces, calls their survival "almost miraculous." For centuries they survived fire, wars and destruction.
When Frederick the Great's armies overran the area more than 200 years ago, Dresden was shelled. Many of the priceless paintings were secreted in the fortress of Koningstein, and thus saved.
When the Napoleon wars raged for years on end, the fortress of Konigstein again served as a secure repository for the paintings, prints and postels. And when World War II brought the greatest of all devastation to Europe - and to Dresden itself - some of the treasures once more were stored safely at Konigstein, and at 45 other areas outside the city.
As the end of that conflagration became evident, a major part of the Dresden collection was taken to two areas for safekeeping - an abandoned lime pit and a railway tunnel. When the Nazis surrendered, Russian troops occuped what is now East Germany, including Dresden. A special detachment of Soviet troops and experts raced to find and safeguard the art. The paintings and other works comprising the bulk of the Dresden collection were transported to Moscow and Kiev for restoration; a decade later, with the opening of the rebuild Dresden museum, the Zwinger, the Russians returned the collection to the Germany city.
Now, the Americans can see the results. They can credit, if they wish, the East German government and the Soviets, as well as the National Gallery and other American museums and organizations. But the existence of this exhibit serves as a testament to something else - to a universal spirit that knows to national boundaries.
The National Gallery, in recounting the way in which these treasures survived, recalls the words of a Renaissance humanist, Alberti: The sheer beuaty of a work of art is sufficient to prevent its destruction. That sounds nice, but it's not correct. Survival stems from people willing to take risks and to place certain values over life itself. Even then, there's no assurance that great art always will survive great wars and destruction.
Reveries are not my normal style, but I confess to being lost in them the other day while viewing the Dresden collection at a gallery preview. I vaguely remembered that Dresden had been destroyed toward the end of World War II, and didn't see how the treasures before me could have survived. (This was before reading the gallery's helpful packet of information.)
The fact of survival was as wonderful as the reality of destruction was terrible. Both are worth recalling today.
On Feb. 13, 1945, Allied planes firebombed Dresden, an open city, unprotected, containing no war industries nor troop concentrations. Approximately 135,000 people died, and the city was destroyed. It was the worst single catastrophe of World War II, an event eclipsing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in its horror.
Not all of the Dresden treasures survived. A truck carrying 200 works of art to a safe place was passing through Dresden when the bombers struck. They went up in the flames, too. And, 42 great paintings left in the city were destroyed.
Kurt Vonnegut was an American prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden and later described some of its horrors in his novel, "Slaughter-House Five." His fictional protagonist tells of his first sight of that city, the loveliest that most of the Americans had ever seen. "The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven."
Then, the bombing: "Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.
"So it goes."
A proposal: Let Carter and Brezhnev, Brzezinski and Gromyko meet face-to-face. The time, immediately. The place, the Dresden collection in Washington's new National Gallery East Building. That's certainly as good a place as any to ponder mutual questions of destruction and survival.