Photograph of Joseph Leo KoernerJoseph Leo Koerner

Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture

Joseph Leo Koerner teaches the history of art and architecture from the late Middle Ages through the present, focusing largely on the cultures of Northern Europe, especially Germany, Flanders, and Austria. In addition to general surveys of art history—including a history of Western art conducted in reverse chronology—he has taught thematic courses on iconoclasm, the aesthetics of the ugly, self-portraiture, visual evidence, Romanticism, memory, Viennese architecture, Adam and Eve, and the concept of the enemy. Most of his courses are object-based and conducted in the Harvard Art Museums. Koerner is also a documentary filmmaker interested in the exploring presence of the past—as history, memory, archive, and monument. 

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised there and in Vienna, Austria, Koerner studied English and German literature at Yale University (B.A. 1980), Cambridge University (M.A. 1982), and University of Heidelberg (1982-3) before entering the graduate program in History of Art at U.C. Berkeley (M.A. 1985, Ph.D. 1988). After three years as Junior Fellow at Harvard’s Society of Fellows (1986-9), he joined the Harvard faculty, where he was Assistant Professor of Fine Art and Professor 1990-1999. 1999-2001 he was Professor of Modern Art History at the University of Frankfurt, and afterwards moved to London, where he was Professor first at University College London, then at the Courtauld Institute of Art (until 2007). He is currently the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Affiliate of German Languages and Literature at Harvard. He also serves as Senior Fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows. 

At Harvard, Koerner organized exhibitions on Early Netherlandish Painting (1990), German Renaissance Art (1993), Pieter Bruegel’s engravings (1995), Netherlandish prints 1550-1675 (1999), and Adam and Eve (2018). At the Austrian National Gallery in 1997, he curated a retrospective of the work of his father, the painter Henry Koerner (1915-1991). In 2002, he collaborated with Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel on the exhibition Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, and he contributed to Latour and Weibel’s exhibitions Making Things Public and Reset Modernity! 

Koerner’s books include Die Suche nach dem Labyrinth--Der Mythos von Dädalus und Ikarus (1983), Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (1990), The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (1993), The Reformation of the Image (2004), Dürer's Hands (2006), and Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016). Koerner wrote and presented the three-part series “Northern Renaissance” for BBC Television in 2006, as well as the feature-length documentary “Vienna: City of Dreams,” commissioned by BBC Scotland and premiered on the BBC December 2007. 

Koerner was awarded the Jan Mitchell Prize for the History of Art in 1992 and the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship 2006-7. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 1995) and the American Philosophical Society (since 2008), and currently serves as trustee on the boards of the American Academy of Berlin and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He has delivered the Slade Lectures at both Cambridge University (2003) and Oxford University (2013), as well as the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington (2008), the Tanner Lectures in Human Values at Cambridge University (2012), and the Gombrich Lectures on the Classical Tradition at the Warburg Institute (2016). He held the 2018 Avenali Chair in the Humanities at U.C. Berkeley, where gave talks on current research and screened his film project. 

Koerner received the 2009 Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award, which funded the Vienna Project at Harvard. Through that funding, he finished in 2018 the feature-length documentary film The Burning Child, which he wrote, directed, and produced. Shot in Vienna and London, with postproduction in New York and Los Angeles, it explores, through interviews, visual explorations, and music, the dream and nightmare of homemaking in Vienna from the city's emergence as a major metropolis around 1900 through Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 and beyond. The project was the subject of an extended conversation between and Professor Benjamin Buchloh published in the Fall 2018 issue of OCTOBER Magazine. Screenings of The Burning Child with fielding questions have taken place at Yale, the Pacific Film Archives, Harvard, the Neue Galerie New York, the Tisch School of Art at NYU, the Met, and in Vienna. Future director's screenings include the Whitney (Nov. 17, 2019), Princeton (Dec. 4), Vanderbild University and University of British Columbia (both in March 2020). The film is an official selection of the 2019 Jewish Film Festival Jerusalem.

2020-2021 Koerner collaborated again with Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel on the large, interdisciplinary exhibition “Critical Zones” mounted at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe in 2021. His contribution to the show consisted of a small exhibition within the exhibition of paintings—borrowed from the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe—related to the Romantic concept of Erdkunde (“earth tidings”). Koerner's current scholarly research concerns art in states of siege or exception, with particular reference to the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Max Beckmann, and Kentridge. He is also collaborating on a exhibition of the art of William Blake, co-curating a large section devoted to Philipp Otto Runge.