Alexander Dorner, 1893-1957

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Alexander Dorner was born in January, 1893, in Königsberg, Germany. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in courses at the Königsberg University. With the onset of World War I, Dorner would divide the next four years between military service and his university studies. He transferred to the University of Berlin in 1915, where he began his study of art history, archaeology, philosophy, and history. While completing his degree Dorner associated with other future historians such as Erwin Panofsky, and it was during this time that he developed a strong interest in art theory and the necessity of revitalizing the study of art history. Upon completion of his dissertation in 1919, Dorner found employment at the Provincial Museum in Hannover, Germany. Though a novice and one of the youngest museum directors in Europe, Dorner showed ambition and a desire for change. He set about the transformation of the Hanover Museum, intent on creating a new conceptual arrangement. The collection was rearranged to create "atmosphere rooms" that were intended to demonstrate the continuity of themes in art through the ages rather than illustrate specific art historical periods.

Dorner's museum work and advocacy of modern art gained him recognition from German and international colleagues. He was the first museum director in the world to purchase and permanently exhibit the works of Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitzky. In the early 1920s he was able to make contact with multiple international gallery owners, collectors, and artists, putting Hannover on the map in avant-garde art circles. Recognition of Dorner's work increased in 1927 when he collaborated with the constructivist El Lissitzky in the creation of the "Abstract Cabinet," a theoretical design for a dynamic museum room based on the viewer's perspective.

As a result of the worsening world economic crisis and the change in the cultural and political climate in Germany, many of Dorner's future projects would not come to fruition. His influence in international avant-garde circles and his lifestyle were cause for increasing suspicion, and his defense of "degenerate art" led to his being forced out of his position at the Hannover Museum by the Nazis in February 1937, ostensibly because of his financial practices.

Dorner appealed to friends and colleagues in the United States, including Alfred Barr, Erwin Panofsky, and Walter Gropius, all of whom assisted Dorner in his attempts to find a position in America. Through the support of these influential contacts and his associations with the Bauhaus, Dorner was finally nominated in late 1937 to be director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. At RISD Dorner implemented many of the same ideas he had in the Hannover Museum, creating atmosphere rooms, and promoting public access to the museum, particularly for students and children. Dorner's contributions to the RISD museum were initially successful and museum attendance grew exponentially. After a few years, however, conflicts arose between Dorner and the board of the museum, partially due to his personality and directorial methods. The rise of anti-German and anti-Nazi sentiment in America raised suspicions regarding Dorner's political orientation, and the FBI investigated and denounced him as a Nazi sympathizer, despite his earlier attempts at opposition to the Nazi party in Germany. In May of 1941, Dorner was dismissed as director of the RISD museum.

With the help of some prominent society members of Providence, Dorner was able to rehabilitate his public reputation later that year; however, he never directed another museum. He gained a position as lecturer at the art department of Brown University, and in 1948 joined the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont where he lectured on art theory and twentieth-century art history. His experience at the RISD Museum had greatly affected him, and he gradually lost touch with current developments in the contemporary museum and art world. He died in November of 1957, during a trip to Europe to settle formalities related to his persecution by the Nazis.

From the guide to the Papers, 1834-1985, 1834-1935, (Harvard Art Museum Archives, Harvard University)

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Birth 1893

Death 1957

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SNAC ID: 7446011