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Heinrich Geissler papers, 1857-1996, bulk 1960-1990

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Finding aid for the Heinrich Geissler Papers, 1857-1996, bulk 1960-1990

Biographical / Historical Note

The German art historian Heinrich Geissler (1927-1990) spent most of his professional career at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, becoming chief curator of prints and drawings in 1983. A student of Kurt Bauch, he completed his dissertation on the Bavarian court painter, Christoph Schwarz, in 1960. The significance of his scholarship must be seen within the art historical context of the post-war reevaluation of what until then, and especially under the Nazi regime, was considered German art. This substantial reconsideration had a profound impact on Geissler's generation and without it his groundbreaking exhibition Zeichnung in Deutschland deutsche Zeichner 1540-1640, held at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart between December 1979 and February 1980, would likely have not taken place. After the collapse of National Socialism, art historians were in a sense "free" to assess the artistic production in the many German-speaking regions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Central Europe as a totality, regardless of where the artists active in those places were born. Seeing artists in terms of where they produced their works, rather than in terms of their national origin, enabled the post-war scholars to rethink the history of late Renaissance and early Baroque German art. In addition, after World War II, German museums were generally encouraged not to organize exhibitions promoting only great German masters such as Albrecht Dürer. As a scholar and museum curator, Geissler focused on artworks by lesser-known artists from a period that was still viewed as a time of decline after the heyday of German Renaissance art of the early sixteenth century, when the "great German masters" such as Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Hans Holbein the Elder, and Hans Holbein the Younger were active.

Geissler devoted his scholarship to a period that was characterized by German artists travelling and adopting styles from a variety of different regions and that also was marked by non-German artists who travelled throughout the German-speaking world of the Holy Roman Empire. It was his innovative and systematic approach towards organizing his research files that opened the way to new scholarship. Geissler arranged the materials geographically from North to South into separate groups for the many centers of art production, and included not only artwork by artists who were schooled and active locally, but also artwork by artists travelling from other German-speaking regions or from other countries, especially from the Netherlands and Italy. If artists travelled and produced art in various places, he filed their artistic output in places where it was produced. Within each center of art production, he organized the material chronologically and by category of the commissioned art. Such a systematic approach made it possible not only to trace stylistic and iconographic changes in the artworks of travelling artists and to define the specific style of locally produced art, but also to document interregional and international contacts between the artists and to study the dynamics of art production resulting from such exchanges. Furthermore, by establishing the specifically local characteristics of art production centers, Geissler contributed to the attribution of numerous anonymous and undated drawings.

Thus, by filing the artwork geographically, regardless of the artists' regional origins or nationality, Geissler changed the established definition of the art historical term "German drawing" from a term based on national identity to the geographically defined term "drawing from Germany."

Geissler's major publication, the extensive two-volume catalog of the 1979-1980 exhibition Zeichnung in Deutschland deutsche Zeichner 1540-1640, follows the arrangement of his research files and is considered a handbook for scholars of late Renaissance and early Baroque German drawing. Geissler also published numerous articles. The bibliography of his writings was included in the 1991 publication Erwerbungen der Graphischen Sammlung Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1983-1990 (pages 181-184); and was supplemented in 2003 by Hans-Martin Kaulbach in his article on Geissler's archive in the Kunstchronik (Feb. 2003, Heft 2).

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