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Dorner, Alexander

Date born: 1893

Place Born:  Königsberg, Germany (modern Kaliningrad, Russia)

Date died: 1957

Place died: Naples, Italy

Early progressive museum director and professor of art history and Brown University and Bennington College. Dorner came from a long line of distinguished theologians and clergy.  His grandfather, Isaak August Dorner (1809-1884), had been a professor at the University of Berlin and rector.  His father, August Dorner (1846-1920), was a professor of theology and Philology at Wittenberg;  his mother, Alice Hasselmeyer (1862-?), was raised in English-speaking India.  Like his parents, Dorner was a free-thinker and adamantly opposed the Prussian imperialism. His father did not allow his mother to teach him English, preferring to read his son Homer and Dante (Wendland).  After graduating from the Königsberg gymnasium, Dorner entered the university at Königsberg, but when World War I was declared, the young man alternated military service his studies. In 1915 he transferred to the University of Berlin, studying art history, archaeology, history and philosophy.  In Berlin, Dorner comprised part of a distinguished group of graduate students in art history who also included Ida Ledermann, Hans Huth, Erwin Panofsky, and Eberhard Schenk zu Schweinsberg. His dissertation on Romanesque architecture, written under Adolph Goldschmidt, was accepted for his Ph.D. in 1919.  Dorner's habilitation was written the following year and he worked as a Privatdozent. He married Ella Grotewold around this time.  Dorner joined the State Museum (Landesmuseum) in Hannover as a curator in 1923, rising to director in 1925 (one of the youngest in Germany). As such, he was responsible for many smaller museums in the Hanover area.  His appointment coincided with Walter Gropius' foundation of the Bauhaus a short distance away in Weimar.  Dorner was one of the early and great leaders of avant-garde art collecting in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s concentrating in Constructivist art for the collection focusing on Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitzky. Dorner commissioned from Moholy-Nagy was the “Raum der Gegenwart” (Room of the Present) which was designed to include film projections, although the space was never realized.  Dorner taught as an assistant professor at the Technische Hochschule in Hannover, beginning in 1928 (through 1936), contributing to the journal Museum der Gegenwart (The Museum of Today) from 1930 to 1933. As a director, Dorner juxtaposed art with other objects of different periods in his installations, a new method for art museums.  His progressivist art policies put him in direct opposition with the Nazi party, who assumed power in Germany in 1933. Dorner led the fight against the Nazi "Entartete Kunst" (degenerate art) exhibition of modern art in 1936. After the government confiscated the Museum's modern art and accused him of financial impropriety, Dorner resigned from the Museum in 1937. After briefly living in Berlin, he emigrated first to France and then the United States.  With the recommendations of Panofsky (now in New York) and Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., he secured the position of director of the Art Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1938. At Rhode Island, Dorner reorganized the traditionally displayed works in the Museum into dramatic installations which appealed to the public.  At the outbreak of World War II, Dorner's anti-Nazi history was ignored and because he was German (and had a brother flying in the Luftwaffe), he was forced to resign from the RISD museum in 1941.  He lectured in art history at Brown University beginning in 1941, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1943.  After the War, Dorner moved to Bennington, VT, in 1948 to be Professor for Art and Esthetics at Bennington College.  He married a second time in the United States to Lydia Nepto.  While on a trip to Italy to address Nazi crimes against him, he died of a heart attack in Naples at age 64. His papers are held at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University.

Tall with a dueling scar, Dorner fit the contemporary image of an expatriate German.  His philosophy, however, was anything but elitist.  Strongly populist, he worked for installations to appeal to a greater variety of people, driving attendance levels up. His Hanover innovations in exhibition space included grouping objects in rooms by themes rather than by period.  At RISD, he removed many of the traditional exhibition cases around objects to make their esthetic appeal greater.  The false accusation by the FBI of his Nazi sympathy and removal from the RISD museum hurt Dorner deeply and despite exoneration in the press, Dorner never again worked for a museum.

Home Country:  Germany/United States

Sources:  "Dorner Shown Anti-Nazi, Failure to Rename Him Splits Rhode Island Museum Board." New York Times October 17, 1941, p. 20; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 46 mentioned; Flacke, Monika.  Museumskonzeptionen in der Weimarer Republik: die Tätigkeit Alexander Dorners im Provinzialmuseum Hannover.  Marburg: Jonas, 1985;  Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999,  vol. 1, pp. 123-7; Cauman, Samuel. The Living Museum: Experiences of an Art Historian and Museum Director, Alexander Dorner. New York: New York University Press, 1958 [conflicting biographical information]; Flacke, Monka. "Alexander Dorner." in, Junge, Henricke, ed. Avantgarde und Publikum: zur Rezeption avantagardistischer Kunst in Deutschland, 1905-1933. Vienna: Böhler, 1992, pp. 51-58; Ockman, Joan. "The Road Not Taken: Alexander Dorner's Way Beyond Art."  in, Somol, Robert.  Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant-garde in America  New York: Monacceli Press, 1997;  Sandra Loschke, personal correspondence, May 2010; [obituaries:]  Gummere, Peggy Mowry "Alexander Dorner, 1893-1958 [sic]." College Art Journal 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1959): 159-160; "Alexander Dorner, Art Historian, Dies, Bennington Professor Had Led Museums." New York Times November 5, 1957, p. 31.

Bibliography: [complete bibliography:] "Bibliography of Alexander Dorner's Works."  in, Cauman, Samuel. The Living Museum: Experiences of an Art Historian and Museum Director, Alexander Dorner. New York: New York University Press, 1958, p. 211; Katalog der kunstammlungen im Provinzial-Museum zu Hannover.  Berlin: Klinkhardt & Biermann 1930; Meister Bertram von Minden. Berlin: Rembrandt-verlag, 1937; The Way Beyond 'Art': the Work of Herbert Bayer. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947.

Subject's name: Alexander Dorner