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History of the Department

A Brief History of the Department*

Grabstein Ritgen
Gravestone of Ritgen at the old cemetery in Giessen, photo: S. Ruby 2021

The beginnings of the Department of Art History in Giessen date back to the early 19th century and were linked to the university education of architects. From 1835, Hugo von Ritgen (1811-1889), who had been trained as an architect in Darmstadt, gave drawing lessons at the Giessens’s Ludwigs University. In 1838, a chair of architecture and engineering was established for him there. In the same year, Ritgen was also involved in founding the Craftsmen's school of the local trade association. This was a forerunner of today's TH Mittelhessen University of Applied Sciences (THM), whose Department of Civil Engineering moved into the newly refurbished Hugo von Ritgen House in the city centre in 2003.

Hugo von Ritgen worked as an architect, monument conservator and university professor and was also active as a visual artist. The Oberhessische Museum in Giessen houses an extensive collection of watercolours by his hand. From 1849 until the end of his life, Ritgen was responsible for the restoration of the Wartburg near Eisenach in Thuringia. His current art historical reputation mainly stems from this activity, whereas his work in Giessen and in the region still awaits in-depth exploration.** As part of the reorganization of the higher education system in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, the chair of architecture and engineering was transferred in 1874 to the Polytechnic School or (since 1877) Technical University Darmstadt. Hugo von Ritgen, however, remained in Giessen and from then on taught art history rather than architecture.

After Ritgen's death in 1889, the Giessen chair remained vacant for several years and was not filled again until 1893 by the private lecturer Adelbert Matthaei (1859-1924). Matthaei, who was an expert on French Cistercian architecture, stayed only briefly, however. In the winter of 1893/94, he moved to the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel as an academic drawing teacher and associate professor of art history. One more the chair remained vacant for several years and was finally taken over by the classical archaeologist Bruno Sauer (1861-1919). In 1897 Sauer was appointed associate professor of archaeology and art history, and in the following year he became director of the Department of Art History and the Cabinet of Art, Coins and Antiquities of the Ludwigs University. From then on and for more than a decade, the two academic disciplines were united in one department. Intensive use was made, especially in teaching, of a considerable in-house-collection of art historical and archaeological objects.

Ehemaliges Kunstwissenschaftliches Institut
Former building of the Department of Art History, Ludwigstraße 34, Giessen, photo: wikipedia

In 1906, the architect and art historian Christian Rauch (1877-1976) habilitated under Sauer and was soon appointed as a private lecturer in Giessen. Under his aegis, the Department of Art History was reorganized and the so-called Art History Seminar was founded. Rauch, who was not appointed to a full professorship until 1920, had quite a broad expertise, encompassing architecture and painting, especially of the older periods. He was also very committed to the documentation and indexing of art monuments in Hesse and in the region, edited the journal Hessen-Kunst, and worked closely with artists for this purpose. Rauch earned special merits with the excavation campaign to research the Carolingian imperial palace in Ingelheim am Rhein. Supported by the Gesellschaft der Giessener Kunstfreunde (Society of Friends of Art in Giessen, founded in 1919), Rauch was committed to the interests of the department, with regard to both the procurement of teaching materials as well as decent accommodation. In 1928, the department was able to move into the town building at Ludwigstrasse 34, which for that reason had been expanded to include an auditorium annex.

After the Second World War the Ludoviciana lost its university status and was reduced to agriculture and veterinary medicine (Justus Liebig University of Applied Sciences). As a consequence, also the Department of Art History was shut down, and the Amerikahaus moved into the building in Ludwigstrasse in 1946. The library and almost all other teaching materials of the department were transferred to the Technical University of Darmstadt. But as early as 1950, art history courses were again offered for students in Giessen. They were taught by the private lecturer Ottmar Kerber (1902-1986) and ensured continuity and cultivation of the subject locally, which benefited the eventual re-establishment of a full professorship. In 1965, Günther Fiensch (1910-1978) was appointed to the chair, and the University of Giessen once again had an art history department, which since 1972 - with the appointment of Norbert Werner (1937-2019) - steadily held two professorships.

In the late 1960s, an department for art education was established at the University of Giessen as well. Distributed over two newly built campus areas on the outskirts of the city, there were thus two departments in the process of being established. Both were focused on fine arts rather than architecture. Their multifaceted collaboration has yet to be reconstructed in detail.

Baviera, Räderwerk Nord, Giessener Kunstweg
Vincenzo Baviera, Raederwerk Nord, 1986-1990, part of the sculpture path Giessener Kunstweg, Campus Philosophikum I, photo: Stefan Flöper

While Günther Fiensch devoted himself primarily to pre-modern painting and graphic art, Norbert Werner, who was trained in medieval art history, represented a thematically broad tableau, especially in teaching. Both pursued questions of form and style in art history. Werner founded the journal Giessener Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte in 1970 (until 1997) and was also involved in the development of the Giessener Kunstweg. This sculpture path, which connects the two campus areas to this day, was initiated by Gottfried Boehm (b. 1942). He was appointed to the Giessen chair in 1979, and during his time, modern art and the history and theory of images became important fields of research and teaching at the department. He was assisted in this by Bernd Growe (1950-1992). In 1986 Boehm moved to a full professorship in art history at the University of Basel. His immediate successor in Giessen was Oskar Bätschmann (b. 1943) in 1988, who, however, accepted a call to the University of Bern already the following year. The vacant chair was taken over in 1993 by Marcel Baumgartner (b. 1950), who looked after the department’s fortunes until 2016.

Neuer Kunstverein Giessen e.V.
Neuer Kunstverein Giessen e.V. (New Art Association Giessen), in the background the chapel of the old cemetery, photo: Jan Schüler 2014

Baumgartner enriched Giessen's art history with a keen interest in the historiography of the discipline and its philological traditions, as well as personal experience in art historical practices. He continued the department’s focus on modern art and architecture and, beginning in 1995, worked with students on a series of exhibitions of contemporary art. These were presented in the old Giessen Kunsthalle (Kongresshalle) and documented in the publication series Kunstgeschichte und zeitgenössische Kunst. In 1998, Baumgartner co-founded the Neue Kunstverein Giessen (New Art Association Giessen), thus creating an important interface between the Department of Art History and Art Education at the university, the urban public, and the cultural scene in the region.

In 2003, Silke Tammen (1964-2018), was appointed to the second professorship at the Department of Art History in Giessen and gave it a decidedly medievalist profile accentuated by visual and material studies. Tammen represented an innovative and interdisciplinary art history of the Middle Ages. She not only brought manuscripts and textiles, reliquaries and decorative objects into view in a new way, but also knew how to research and teach them in their sensual ambiguity.

Since 2016 and 2019, respectively, Sigrid Ruby (b. 1968; Modern and Contemporary Art History) and Markus Späth (b. 1969; Medieval Art History) have headed the Department of Art History. Co-opted is the professorship for art history at the Institute for Art Education, held since 2008 by Claudia Hattendorff (b. 1963).


* A more detailed version of the history of our department with references to the sources or secondary literature is in progress.

** The life and work of Hugo von Ritgen are currently being researched by the art historian Dr. Yvonne Rickert. The project has been developed cooperatively by the Department of Art History (Prof. S. Ruby) and the Department of Civil Engineering of the THM (Prof. N. Zieske, U. Wassermann).