Rüdiger Klessmann, the distinguished German art historian and museum curator, died on March 30th, 2020 at the age of 93.
Klessmann was born in Lemgo and studied the history of art at the Universities of Göttingen and Kiel. He wrote his dissertation on Die Baugeschichte der Stiftskirche zu Mollenbeck an der Weser und die Entwicklung der westlichen Dreiturmgruppe (The History of the Collegiate Church in Mollenbeck on the Weser and the Development of the Three-Tower Westwork, 1952). He was a volunteer at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt and spent three years as a research assistant (wissenschaftlicher Assistent) at the University of Stuttgart before being appointed as Curator at the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, then at Dahlem, in 1957. He was curator of the 17th century Dutch, Flemish, and German paintings and published widely on these subjects. Throughout his career he had a special interest in 17th-century German painting, a field he rightly considered to be understudied. He served for many years with characteristic energy and dedication on the editorial board of Monographien zur deutschen Barockmalerei (Monographs on German Baroque Painting – Deutscher Kunstverlag). In 1970 he was appointed Director of the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig, a post he held until 1990. He retired, with his wife the art historian Dora Klessmann (who died in 2014) to Augsburg, where he made great use of the resources of the Zentralinstitut in Munich. They had two sons, Berthold and Tobias.
In Braunschweig Klessmann redeveloped the Museum buildings, modernizing the display and decoration of the Old Master galleries as well as those devoted to the Kunstkammer and Oriental collections including the nearby Dankwarderode Castle, which housed the medieval department of the museum, and he established a Museumspedagogik (Museum Education) department in a building in the Adolfstrasse. With Knut Nicolaus he transformed the Paintings Conservation department into a modern, world-class service. He made a number of major acquisitions: Adam Elsheimer’s Pietà, Rubens’ Adoration of the Shepherds and Orazio Gentileschi’s Crowning with Thorns, among many others. He created a collection of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Klessmann created two large exhibition galleries within the historic building and here he organised a series of ground-breaking exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s. Deutsche Kunst des Barock (German Baroque Art) in 1975 focused attention on this favorite subject and opened up a particularly fruitful exchange with the National Museum in Warsaw. In 1974/5 Deutsche Kunst des Barock showed in Warsaw and Polnische Kunst des Barock (Polish Baroque Art) in Braunschweg. Die Sprache der Bilder. Realität und Bedeutung in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts (The Language of Pictures. Reality and Meaning in Dutch Painting of the 17th Century) in 1978 explored the ideas of his friend Eddy de Jongh and others about the interpretation (and interpretability) of Dutch 17th-century paintings. It was a follow-up to De Jongh’s Tot Lering en Vermaak which had been staged at the Rijksmuseum two years earlier. In the following year, 1979, was Jan Lievens – Ein Maler im Schatten Rembrandts (Jan Lievens – A Painter in the Shadow of Rembrandt), the first major exhibition of the artist and the foundation of much subsequent work. In 1983 he organized (with the Boymans Museum) a very well-chosen exhibition of Ölskizzen von Tintoretto bis Goya (Oil Sketches from Tintoretto to Goya) and in 1987 (with the Centraal Museum, Utrecht) Holländische Malerei in neuem Licht. Hendrick ter Brugghen und seine Zeitgenossen (Dutch Art in a new Light. Hendrick ter Brugghen and his Contemporaries). All these exhibitions were accompanied by a scholarly symposium chaired by Rüdiger who was an even-handed and generous chairman. I remember, with particular pleasure, the Lievens and ter Brugghen symposia for their very fruitful exchange of views and new discoveries.
After his retirement from Braunschweig and his move to Augsburg he continued to be very active. He produced the authoritative monograph on that fascinating artist Johann Liss (1999) and was a key member of the team working on the memorable Elsheimer exhibition in Frankfurt, Edinburgh, and Dulwich in 2006. He was the principal author of the excellent catalogue.
My memory of Rüdiger is of someone who (with Dora) was extremely welcoming to a young curator visiting Braunschweig. He was dedicated, serious but also constantly smiling and a wonderful companion. He belonged to that generation of Museum Directors who were not only effective and humane administrators but excellent art historians in a particular area of their collections. He modernized the museum, cherished his staff and made a major and lasting contribution to the history of German, Flemish and Dutch art. I shall cherish his memory.
University of Oxford
Added to Rüdiger’s impressive biography should be his long-time membership in and support of HNA.