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Max Imdahl - Biography

From 1965 until his early death in 1988, Max Imdahl was a full professor of art history at the Ruhr University in Bochum. In this capacity, he was one of the pioneers of modern art history.

 

Born in 1925 into a musical family in Aachen, Germany Max Imdahl participated in the contemporary musical life of the city. His family background and his early experience with music influenced his later understanding of fine arts. “I learned to internalize a piece of art through music, even if it was done unconsciously at the time. This experience has been stimulating me for the rest of my life”. (From “Autobiography", in "Gesammelte Schriften", Volume 3, p. 622).

 

Beginning in 1945 Imdahl studied Painting, Art History, Archeology and German philology at the University of Münster. In 1950 his painting “Schmerzensmann” won him several prizes, including the prestigious Blevin-Davis Prize. Increasingly, however, his art began to suffer under the continuous pressure to succeed. Gradually Imdahl turned away from painting and concentrated on his art history studies. Over time painting became exclusively a private hobby and remained so until his death.

 

In 1949 while studying in Switzerland, he was able to see the growing private and public collections of contemporary art. The prizes he had won for his paintings made it possible for him to continue participating in study-trips taking him to France and Italy.  

 

In 1951 he completed his PhD on "Problems of color of late-Caroling book-paintings" (“Farbenprobleme spätkarolingischer Buchmalerei”) supervised by Werner Hager. Shortly thereafter, the Aaseehaus-Kolleg employed him as a tutor, where one of his tasks was to lead discussion rounds on contemporary art. From there he served as the assistant of Werner Hager, and completed his postdoctoral thesis in 1961, titled “Studien zu ottonischen Ereignisbildern”. Shortly thereafter he received a visiting professorship at the University of Hamburg.

 

In 1965 he was invited to establish the Institute of Art History at the newly founded Ruhr University in Bochum. Max Imdahl accepted this important post serving as a dedicated professor and a passionate art historian until his death.

 

In 1968 he became a member of the prestigious and artistically influential “Documenta-Council” which hosted the renowned art series Documenta in Kassel, Germany. The council included luminaries such as Arnold Rüdlinger, Albert Schulze Vellinghausen, Eugen Gomringer, Jean Leering, as well as temporary members Werner Schmalenbach and Fritz Winter. Together with them Imdahl was responsible for selecting the paintings presented at the Documenta.

 

As a full professor at Ruhr University, one of Max Imdahl’s responsibilities was to develop an art collection. The pieces donated by Albert Schulze Vellinghausen in 1968 became the foundation of this collection. With the opening of the art collection in 1975 it was the first university owned museum in Germany. The three focuses of this museum are: antique arts, coin collection and contemporary art. Only a year after its foundation, a generous donation by Dr. Paul Dierichs allowed the curators to enlarge the collection by acquiring antique and modern sculptures. The confrontation of old and new artworks became the core concept of the collection. Imdahl, a gifted curator, managed to acquire new artworks every year. In addition, by providing direct access to students, Imdahl made the collection an essential part of the university‘s Art History studies.

 

In developing the university collection, Imdahl discovered that intensive and regular dialogues with the artists themselves are an essential component of understanding artistic presentation. He pursued these dialogues with various artists, beginning with Ernst Wilhelm Nay and continuing with Günter Fruhtrunk, Gotthard Graubner, Norbert Kricke, Adolf Luther, François Morellet, Richard Serra and Günther Uecker.

 

Another important principal for Imdahl was to liberate modern art from a merely academic discussion and to make it understandable for laymen. Imdahl began giving seminars to workers of the company Bayerwerk in Leverkusen, Germany. Excerpts of these seminars were published in the book Workers Discuss Contemporary Art („Arbeiter diskutieren Moderne Kunst“) in 1979.

 

For Max Imdahl, art history was more than simply a theoretical field of science; it was the science of direct access, the experience of art. “I have always tried to start with perception and to connect this to possible reflections” (from “Autobiography“, in "Gesammelte Schriften", Volume 3, p. 624).

 

As an art historian he always approached non-contemporary art from a contemporary aspect; seeing, even in ancient art, the relevance to the modern viewer. At the same time, he never tried to interpret modern art as a necessary consequence of the art which had preceded the modern era.   

 

His approach, though time-related, always bound to the present. He understood that it was his task as an art historian to connect art to the present, to give older pieces a contemporary relevance thus making them accessible for the contemporary public. Because of this, Max Imdahl did not approach a piece of art from the thematic aspect of the time it was created, but concentrated on the connection between the present day viewer and the viewed object. The structures that can be explored through art will become experiences and will lay the foundation for future structures which will be discovered and envisioned.

 

This was the concept behind Imdahl‘s ‘Iconic method’. It was created from modern art, in conjunction with, but also differentiated from, the methods of iconography, iconology and structural analysis which were based on older art. The aspiration of the Iconic is to express qualities that are unique in arts. An iconic perception reveals the aesthetic content of the individual piece of art. This was a new approach to both art history as well as to contemporary art and represents a pioneering approach to pre-modern art.